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    French Drama Sauvage/Wild Is Mesmerizing

    By Gary Kramer–

    Writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet’s raw, blistering drama, Sauvage/Wild, opening May 3 in the Bay Area, concentrates almost all of its energy on the body of Léo (Féliz Maritaud), an attractive 22-year-old gay male prostitute. Getting naked in the pre-title scene, viewers get an eyeful of this unselfconscious young man. As the film progresses, Léo’s body, which is frequently on display, is used, bruised and abused. Viewers may actually feel as battered as Léo by the film’s end. (The film is not unlike Agnes Varda’s Vagabond in this respect.)

    Vidal-Naquet follows his subject as if he were shooting a nature documentary. He films a cluster of male prostitutes in their native environs, peacocking and often shirtless to attract a client’s attention. He chronicles Léo plying his trade, as well as stealing fruit to eat, washing or drinking using water literally out of the street, or sleeping wherever he can. How long Léo has been doing this and how he got to this point in his life are not the film’s concern. Léo shyly admits that he enjoys what he does—it may explain why he is willing to kiss his clients—but it may also be his only option.

    Sauvage/Wild wisely does not judge its characters; Vidal-Naquet merely presents them as they are. When Léo is seen being sexual in one scene and doing drugs the next, he may just hustle for a score. When he dances at a nightclub or a party, he may be releasing his pent-up energy or trying to seduce a client. Does Léo want to be rescued from his life on the streets? The film lets viewers decide.

    Léo is very good at giving affection. He is tender with an old man who hires him but can’t quite consummate sex. He is especially caring towards a disabled man who pays Léo and Ahd (Éric Barnard), a fellow hustler, for a threesome. This may make Léo sympathetic, but he can also be a bit of a jerk. Léo is very much in love with the gay-for-pay Ahd, and while Ahd protects Léo, he adamantly does not reciprocate his friend’s desires. Léo’s efforts to change Ahd’s mind result in ugly confrontations and punches.

    Sauvage/Wild is mostly plotless as it follows Léo around the streets of Paris, but it is never boring. Léo’s trysts with various clients are perversely fascinating. He has a particularly intense session with a couple who were tired of oral sex. In another session, Mihal (Nicolas Dibla), a fellow prostitute, asks Léo to inject a drug into his penis that will knock out their client. Léo accommodates these requests, and his responses to these encounters reveal details about his character and his emotions. However, it is a touching, candid visit with a sensitive female doctor (Marie Seux) that is most illuminating. Léo has some serious health and respiratory issues. When he stops in mid-examination to hug her, Sauvage/Wild is oddly poignant and moving.

    For much of the film, Léo’s emotions are calculated. Even when he meets Claude (Philippe Ohrel)—one of those rich older men Ahd repeatedly tells Léo to find to exit hustling—Léo is cagey. How he pursues this opportunity provides the film with some dramatic tension.

    Léo’s ineluctable sexiness may be exactly why he is desired by clients and strangers. Maritaud gives a tremendous performance, capturing Léo’s palpable despair with his incredible body language. He displays an innocence under Léo’s jaded exterior. When a client asks him to read something, Léo balks, embarrassed by his illiteracy, and changes the subject. When he gives into his passion to kiss Ahd, he absorbs the body shock of Ahd’s slap or punch. Léo is a lost soul, putting on a brave face, and Maritaud allows viewers to know what he is thinking.

    Moreover, much of what Léo feels is written on his body. He has numerous tattoos that look homemade and his skin is often marked with bruises. He is also palpably filthy. Léo’s grunge might make him appealing at times, but it is almost a relief when someone gives him a clean shirt to wear. Viewers may also be anxious to see him shower. (When Léo’s hair is washed and combed in one scene, it may take a moment to recognize him). As for the copious nudity, Maritaud’s lack of inhibition contributes to why his performance is so mesmerizing. He is very comfortable in his skin and generates considerable sympathy. It is hard not to gasp when the camera follows Léo and he just falls down in the street.

    Sauvage/Wild may not add anything new to the story of a male hustler, but what it does show is compelling and moving. Much of that is because of the magnetic Maritaud. 

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer