There have been any number of films about lonely men who fall in love with a prostitute, but Camille Vidal-Naquet’s raw and visceral “Sauvage / Wild” is the rare film about a prostitute who falls in love with another man. But Leo can’t afford to be stingy with his affections; he’s driven by an insatiable and undiscriminating desire for intimacy.
An untethered 22-year-old sex worker who lives on the streets of Strasbourg, and is ferally embodied by Félix Maritaud (who played a supporting role in the bracing “BPM”), Leo doesn’t care about money or moving up in the world, nor does he resent his clients the way that some of his fellow sex workers do. In fact, he seems to lack any natural ability to separate feeling from fucking, and he needs as much from his johns as his johns need from him. When Leo offers to spend the night in bed with a sad widower, his customer is surprised (and perhaps also a little suspicious). “Won’t you get bored?,” the old man asks. “No,” Leo replies, “because that’s what I want, too.” He just wants to be free. And he wants to be loved. And he wants to be free to be loved.
Vidal-Naquet’s dizzyingly restless debut introduces its wayward hero with a destabilizing vignette that gets into his pants and reveals a part of his soul. Handsome but unhygienic — like an adorable stray cat with two pierced nipples and a curious sore on his lip — Leo is lying down on a table and coughing up a lung as a doctor examines his groin through a pair of latex gloves. Jacques Giralt’s handheld camera, which shoots nudity like it doesn’t even notice it, watches impassively as the doctor examines the skin around Leo’s flaccid penis.
But the dynamic changes when Vidal-Naquet cuts to a wide shot and the doctor starts vigorously masturbating his patient. He’s not a very professional doctor. Indeed, he’s not a doctor at all, but rather a horny bureaucrat with an active imagination. And yet, this scene is less important for the sex play than it was for what happens when the two men are setting up their next appointment: Leo asks his satisfied customer — a government worker — if he knows of any good medicine for his cough. Leo, who can’t pretend to be someone he’s not or feel something he doesn’t, seems to have forgotten that the guy who just gave him a handjob was only roleplaying as a physician.
For Leo, everything is real all of the time. In that sense, Leo is endowed with the unvarnished danger of an on-screen erection, even if none of the ones we see in the film belong to him: They remain one of the most taboo sights in modern cinema because they indicate something that can’t be faked. That either makes sex work the best job in the world for him, or the worst. It’s hard to say for sure, and the pull between those polar opposites becomes the most consistent source of tension in an untamed film that moves from one place to the next with the same kind of peripatetic violence that made Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond” feel like it was cutting through the fabric of a linear world.
But Leo is a faintly magical character; a simple spirit who feels more akin to the happy idiot from “Happy as Lazzaro” than he does the wandering Mona Bergeron. It’s as if the intense but unrequited love he feels for the bitter and bisexual Ahd (Eric Bernard), who works on the other side of the road, has left him as vulnerable as an open wound, and he would sooner die than get stitched up. He’s a junkie for love, and his number one dealer isn’t selling to him. So Leo gets his fix where he can. He doesn’t shower. He’s always damp with sweat. He watches the planes as they fly away from his small pocket of the world, but his dreams of escape are disrupted by the feeling that the material comforts of a “better life” won’t fill the hole in his heart. Nobody fantasizes about rehab when they’re looking for their next score.
This isn’t nearly as depressing as it sounds. Leo is a radiant guy, a go-with-God type who smiles at everyone he meets in the hopes that they might smile back at him. It’s distressing to follow him around, the way you might worry for a puppy who keeps sniffing at bigger dogs, but Maritaud moves his body with such taut precision — and occasional joy — that you feel like the character is blessed with an unknown measure of control. He lives by his rules, and we don’t have to know what they are. Sometimes contrived but never melodramatic, his story is carried by an undercurrent of stress that Leo himself seems to effortlessly float above.
From its title on down, “Sauvage / Wild” is a film that’s torn between different translations of the same basic principle — one soft and the other hard. There’s no judgement of him whatsoever, to the point where it sometimes feels like the character is more of a construct than he is a fully dimension person of flesh and blood. The ending is more guilty of this than any number of other examples, as Leo only makes a choice so that Vidal-Naquet doesn’t have to.
On the other hand, Leo’s body is the movie’s default canvas, even if he only thinks of it as a conduit for the things he needs to feel. Maritaud’s body is a movie unto itself, and Vidal-Naquet’s direction is at its most bracing and palpable when it pits the unsentimental (even brutal) physicality of Leo’s work against the tenderness that he waxes onto it. The character enjoys an impossible degree of freedom, but he’s leashed to a feeling that he can only get from other people, and the film’s best moment seizes on that disconnect, as Leo returns to a doctor’s office — a real one this time — and can’t help but hug the woman who tends to his wounds. Is he a wild animal with human needs, or a human being with animalistic desires? Vidal-Naquet doesn’t choose, and Leo doesn’t care. He likes what he does. It gives him what he needs. For better or worse, that can be enough for someone who doesn’t know how to get what he wants.
“Sauvage/Wild” premiered at Cannes in 2018. It is screening as part of New Directors/New Films 2019. Strand Releasing will open it in theaters on April 10.