**_Powerful filmmaking, although the graphic sex scenes and passive protagonist won't be for everyone_** > _Léo has no moral judgement: he is just there. That's his life. He doesn't even know what "get out of it" means; get out of what, to go where?_ - Camille Vidal-Naquet; _Sauvage_ Production Notes _Sauvage_ [trans. _Wild_, although a lot of reviewers are incorrectly calling it _Savage_] is the debut film of writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet, a former professor of film studies, and takes as its subject the daily grind of a male prostitute. Depictions of prostitution in cinema have something of a chequered history; the best known are probably Luis Buñuel's _Belle de Jour_ (1967), which is more interested in female sexual desire than the specifics of prostitution itself, Garry Marshall's _Pretty Woman_ (1990), and Woody Allen's _Mighty Aphrodite_ (1995), both of which are fantastical and utterly divorced from reality. Thus far, it has been the province of smaller films to look at sex workers with anything approaching realism - Keren Yedaya's _Or (My Treasure)_ (2005), Megan Griffiths's _Eden_ (2013), David Pablos's _Las elegidas_ (2015), and, especially, the seismic gut punch that is Lukas Moodysson's _Lilja 4-Ever_ (2002), which is more about sex slavery, but which does deal with the reality of prostitution. In _Sauvage_, Vidal-Naquet strikes a delicate balance between misery porn and objectively delineating the day-to-day of being a sex worker (a balance not found in _Lilja 4-ever_). The film is undeniably bleak, but it's not what you would define as miserablism. Remaining detached from what it depicts, it adopts a clinically dispassionate approach, one that remains always non-judgemental. Intermixing the degrading reality of selling one's self with unexpected moments of tenderness and warmth, Vidal-Naquet taps into something deeply compelling. Some will be put off by the (very) graphic sex scenes, the passivity of the main character, or the lack of much of a plot. However, for everyone else, although it certainly isn't multiplex fare, there's a hell of a lot to admire here. Set in Strasbourg, _Sauvage_ tells the story of Léo (an extraordinarily committed performance from relative newcomer Félix Maritaud), a homeless, drug-addicted male prostitute, whose name, like those of his fellow sex workers, is never spoken in the film (the names come from the press kit). Surviving mainly by drinking from gutters and eating what he can steal and what he can find in bins, as the film begins, Léo is attending a doctor (Lionel Riou), revealing bruises, a split lip, a nasty cough, and stomach pains. Upon examining him, the doctor appears to begin sexually molesting him. However, all is not as it seems in the scene, which is a genius way to open the movie. It soon becomes clear that Léo is a little different from his fellow prostitutes; he's laidback, he seems to enjoy sleeping under the stars, he has no great desire to pursue a better life, he kisses his clients when he feels like it (unlike the others, who all have a no kissing rule), and he treats each sexual encounter as a moment of physical and psychological intimacy, rather than simply a monetary transaction. The episodic narrative follows Léo from one sexual encounter to the next, occasionally focusing on his relationship with gay-for-pay prostitute Ahd (Éric Bernard), with whom he is in love. Within this general framework, we see a wheelchair-bound man (Lucas Bléger) who can only get an erection when he pays for sex; an elderly book-seller (Jean-Pierre Basté), who simply wants Léo to read to him, and who, upon finding out Léo can't read, is content for them to lie in bed holding one another; a heavily pierced couple (Nicholas Fernandez and Nicholas Chalumeau) who treat Léo like a piece of meat; a kindly fellow prostitute, Mihal (Nicholas Dibla), who seems romantically interested in Léo; a notoriously sadistic client known as "The Pianist" (Jean-François-Charles Martin) about whom Ahd warns Léo; and a respectable middle-aged man, Claude (Philippe Ohrel), who has never had a homosexual experience. A truly beautiful scene occurs when Léo attends a female doctor (Marie Seux); treating him with respect and empathy, when she attempts to examine him, he hugs her, and they hold each other for a moment, in an embrace that has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with kindness and emotional support. It's a devastatingly tender moment, flawlessly written, shot, and acted. In preparation for making the film, Vidal-Naquet joined an outreach charity as a way to meet young male prostitutes at the Bois de Boulogne (a well-known location for prostitution in Paris). Intending to go on only a few runs over the course of a couple of weeks, he ended up spending three years visiting the spot, and formed strong friendships with several of the men, all the while refining the script to make it as true to life as possible (all of Léo's sexual encounters in the film come from stories told to him by the actual sex workers). In writing the character of Léo, Vidal-Naquet was influenced by Agnès Varda's _Sans toit ni loi_ (1985), in which Sandrine Bonnaire plays a young homeless woman without a past, and Stuart Rosenberg's _Cool Hand Luke_ (1967), in which Paul Newman plays a character who never loses hope despite enduring great hardships, and whose optimism proves to be his most resilient characteristic. He also had Maritaud watch films such as Amos Kollek's _Sue Lost in Manhattan_ (1998) and Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's _Rosetta_ (1999). For the graphic sex scenes, Vidal-Naquet took inspiration from Paul Verhoeven's _Turks fruit_ (1973) and, bizarrely, _Showgirls_ (1995), explaining, > _I have always been impressed with the way Verhoeven directed his actors and managed to convey that sense of shamelessness and automatic freedom of the body._ Vidal-Naquet describes Léo as > _a solitary young man who hits the road and wanders from one encounter to the next, longing for love, driven by an unquenchable capacity for love that keeps him going, regardless of the violent world around him._ The film reveals nothing about Léo's background - where he comes from, how he became a prostitute, does he have any family - and many of the choices he makes prompt more questions than answers, with much of what he does tied to his notions of personal freedom. Even his final choice, which is undeniably selfish and ill-advised, is consistent with the psychology of the character as seen up to that point. He isn't especially interested in a life away from drugs and prostitution, and so he takes the violence, degradations, and humiliations, because every now and then he meets someone who provides him with a degree of transitory happiness. And that is his primary concern, rather than the practicalities about which his colleagues worry; when asked by the female doctor if he wants to quit drugs, he replies, "_what for?_", and when Mihal offers him a mobile phone, he seems genuinely bemused, asking, "_who would I call?_" Even his attitude to hygiene is questionable - we never once see him taking a shower, his clothes are perpetually filthy, he drinks from gutters and eats from bins, he has a litany of physical ailments, and on two occasions, other characters comment that he smells bad. Even the money he earns from selling himself doesn't seem to be especially important, as he appears to use it primarily for tattoos and drugs. Léo doesn't share in the detachment, coldness, or bitterness of his fellow prostitutes, all of whom find it bizarre that he's willing to kiss clients, and several of whom find it unprofessional. However, the important point is that Léo doesn't kiss on-demand, he does so only when it feels right. This in and of itself illustrates how different he is from the other prostitutes, and how selling himself is not exclusively monetary - he is searching for genuine affection, and he seems incapable of establishing the same boundaries between himself and his clients as the other sex workers live by. He gives much more of himself than them, in the hopes of establishing a genuine human connection with someone. Indeed, Ahd says at one point, "_it's like you enjoy being a whore_", which he doesn't deny. His fellow prostitutes are healthier, cleaner, more financially independent, more aware of the dangers of their occupation, never allowing emotions to become involved. But Léo is far more tender than any of them, and for all the harshness of his life, there is something Emersonian about him. Indeed, for much of the film, he has a pseudo- transcendentalist soul - he is relatively free of the norms of society and its institutions; he is at peace in and with nature; he lives very much in the moment; he has almost no materialist needs whatsoever; he trusts completely in his own instincts, he never lets go of his hope of finding love. Ahd advises him to "_find yourself an old man. A nice one. It's the best that can happen to us_", and Ahd himself has a semi-regular wealthy sugar daddy (Joël Villy) who wants to make their arrangement permanent. Léo, however, wants more than that. This is why the scene with the female doctor is so beautiful and so heartbreaking - when she treats him with respect and shows genuine concern for his wellbeing, he instinctively grabs at the human connection, irrespective of her gender (she's actually the only female in the film). That she allows him to hold her speaks volumes for her understanding of who he is, and the scene is perhaps the one where Léo is most clearly laid bare. Obviously, for a film of this nature to be in any way realistic, it must depict sexuality, and Vidal-Naquet doesn't hold back on that front. At the screening I attended, five people walked out within the first half-hour, by which time there had already been three graphic sex scenes (including a threesome with two prostitutes and a disabled man in a wheelchair). What's interesting about these scenes, however, is that they never lose their potency, irrespective of how many we see. I think the reason for this is how Vidal-Naquet presents them; far from filming them in a voyeuristic way or as titillation, they are instead presented dispassionately as something that happens to people in this line of work, as normal for Léo as taking drugs or sleeping rough - it's simply a part of his life. Cinematographer Jacques Girault employs a pseudo-documentarian _cinéma vérité_ aesthetic; the entire film is shot handheld, with an occasional loss of focus, frequent awkward compositions, and even losing the subject momentarily in the frame before picking him up again. This has the effect of neither demonising sexuality as something perverted and dirty, nor valorising it as the most important part of a relationship. By depicting it as simply a part of Léo's life, Vidal-Naquet normalises it, not just in terms of it being sexual activity, but also in terms of it being homosexual and in terms of it being sex work. He certainly doesn't gloss over the problems of this kind of life, or the sexual perversions one may encounter (represented by Léo's experiences with the pierced couple and The Pianist), but he doesn't present sex work as, in and of itself, fundamentally immoral. Instead, he depicts both sides of the coin; the physical non-sexual intimacy with the elderly bookseller who simply wants someone to read to him and the demeaning threesome with the pierced couple who have Léo stand naked in front of them as they discuss how bad he smells, before roughly using a sex toy that would make even the ladies of LegalPorno.com winch. Indeed, Vidal-Naquet gets his point across about the highs and lows of sex work with a very simple edit - the film cuts from Léo lying peacefully in bed with the bookseller to giving a rough blowjob to a client in a car parked in an alley. In terms of problems, as already stated, many will find the graphic sex scenes too much. Another issue is that Léo is an extremely passive character; he doesn't so much drive the plot as the plot depicts things that happen to him. Coupled with this, he doesn't have much of an arc, and at the end, he isn't overly different from the man we met at the beginning. With him being in every scene, almost every shot, the other prostitutes are very thinly sketched (even Ahd and Mihal), but this is by design. On the other hand, the depiction of Claude, the magnanimous and kindly middle-aged man who takes a liking to Léo and immediately opens his home to him, is open to criticism; in a film founded on realism, he is something of a _deus ex-machina_, arriving in Léo's life just as he reaches his lowest point. On paper, _Sauvage_ should be a textbook case of misery porn, following as it does a homeless drug-addicted male prostitute and his often demeaning sexual encounters. However, Vidal-Naquet's non-judgemental depiction of Léo's occupation and _milieu_ allows the more optimistic elements of his personality to rise to the surface, even in the face of seemingly endless degradations. It's certainly not an easy watch, but amidst the depravity, Vidal-Naquet finds moments of tenderness (the bookseller, the female doctor, Mihal, Claude), moments which mean everything to Léo. Uninterested in titillation, the film depicts sexual activity as something that happens, without judgement or commentary. And by so doing, it avoids, for the most part, the clichés so inherent to films dealing with prostitution. Neither condemning Léo's lifestyle nor valorising it, no matter how demeaning or brutal it becomes, he always seems to find a way to keep going. That may be interpreted as tragic, but that's not the way Léo looks at himself, nor is it the way Vidal-Naquet wants us to look at him.
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