We may all have had our fill of movies about a tart with a heart, but Sauvage is something different. The central character, Léo (Félix Maritaud), is a 22-year-old gay male prostitute who, despite being obliged to perform degrading acts as part of his profession, retains a simplicity and gentleness that would seem to be at odds with the title Sauvage. He seems to be searching for some kind of genuine love, and, unlike the object of his affection, his fellow hustler Ahd (Éric Bernard), who claims not to be gay, he is happy to kiss and show tenderness toward his clients.
This is not one of those movies that romanticizes prostitution or makes it tasteful. First-time director Camille Vidal-Naquet shows the world of hustlers in all its brutality and ugliness. Léo’s life on the streets (he often sleeps on the pavement) has taken its toll on his health, and his face and body both display the scars of his hard existence.
Sauvage starts with Léo’s visit to a doctor, who poses all the questions one might expect a doctor to ask the fragile young man, but it then transpires that he is actually a client indulging in kinky role-playing. This episode serves as a wry prelude to one of the most touching scenes in Sauvage, when Léo sees a real doctor. At one point, as she examines him, he puts his arms around her and rests his head on her shoulders, an embrace she gently allows to linger. When she learns of all the drugs he takes, she suggests a rehab program, to which he responds simply, “Why?”
As that question shows, Léo does not seem to desire or even understand a life different from the one he already has. When another hustler, after robbing a client of his cellphone, offers his own phone to Léo, Léo declines, asking, “Who would I call?”
Later in Sauvage, a man who offers Léo a place to stay after he has suffered a savage beating from a client shows the young man genuine affection and offers him a better life. The ending hinges upon the chances that he may or may not take to make his life different.
Only at the very end does one fully understand the significance of the name Sauvage. As Léo curls up fetus-like on the ground in a forest, one of his hook-up locations, he seems at one with nature, someone who does not belong to the world of social norms.
Félix Maritaud’s performance is astonishingly good. The prize that he won for Sauvage at this year’s Cannes Festival as Revelation of the Festival (in effect, best newcomer) was richly deserved.