This article first appeared in Attitude's Style issue 306. Words: Thomas Stichbury.
Halfway through watching Sauvage, the feature debut of French filmmaker Camille Vidal-Naquet (and, no, not the Johnny Depp aftershave ad), it suddenly dawns on me that I don’t know the name of the main character, a gay hustler turning tricks on the streets and in the woods of Strasbourg, in north east France.
Still coming up short after scouring my notes, I turn to a trusted source — *cough* IMDb — and discover that our protagonist, played by rising star Félix Maritaud, is called Leo. My brain didn’t fail me though.
Further digging reveals that his name is not uttered once during the film. “Why?” is one of the first questions I put to Camille and his leading man when we meet a few weeks later at the Hospital Club in London’s Covent Garden.
“Oops! I knew I forgot something,” jokes 46-year-old Camille, before clarifying that he never had any intention of letting audiences really get to know Leo, the enigmatic, impulsive, feral-like inspiration of the film’s title — which the director translates as “untamed.”
That’s why there isn’t a back story, either: no scattering of breadcrumbs to show how this young man ended up sleeping rough, taking drugs and selling his body.
Mystery and a feeling of disconnect, he explains, was informed by the three years that he spent prior to filming investigating and trailing a group of male prostitutes in Paris, while volunteering with a charity that helps sex workers.
“I pictured male prostitutes as young hunks with perfect bodies but most don’t have [good] hygiene: they are dirty, most of them are sick and injured,” recalls Camille.
“And yet you have this thing where, [despite] not taking care of your body, your body remains an object of desire.
“Every Thursday I would go to see them,” he continues. “I forgot that I was making a movie and felt a bit like a social worker. My producer said: ‘That’s enough’, but it was difficult to leave.
"You start developing these bonds, then one day you arrive and [one of the guys] isn’t there. He never comes back. You don’t know where he is. It broke my heart the first time that happened.”
Despite becoming emotionally involved, the former teacher maintains that he still kept a distance and wanted to recreate the anonymity that many of these men preserved.
“I wanted to respect the sensation that I had when I was with them. I didn’t know where they came from and I accepted that. You don’t know who [Leo] is because the movie isn’t a social analysis of how you become a hustler.”
Camille also met two prostitutes who were simply 'gay for pay', inspiring Sauvage’s platonic love story between Leo and straight fellow rent boy Ahd (played by Eric Bernard).
“They usually come from other countries and have a certain pride in saying, ‘We have wives and kids at home’. I saw them all the time together and learned that they shared the same hotel and bed. One day, one of them said: ‘I’m not well when he’s not there, I need him’.
"I told him: ‘You’re not gay but you love him’. It was very touching.”
Félix, best known here for his performance as an activist in 2017’s acclaimed Aids drama 120 BPM, didn’t feel it was necessary to meet with any real-life counterparts.
“My character is not only out of society but out of this world of male hustling,” he says. “He doesn’t belong to the same codes or rules [as them]. Prostitution is not really a job for him. He needs to share love, and he has found a platform to create links with people and give tenderness.”
Felix and director Camille Vidal-Maritaud
Indeed, the most surprising element of this intimate, and at times explicit, character study — shot on hand-held cameras – is how genuinely tender some (but certainly not all) scenes between Leo and his 'johns' are, from a disabled guy in a wheelchair seeking his services, to a night spent sleeping in the arms of a lonely, recently widowed older man.
Leo doesn’t recoil from their touch, in fact, he actively seeks the embrace. Is it immediately at odds, I wonder aloud, with classic (if morally dodgy) rom-com Pretty Woman, in which Julia Roberts’ call girl refuses to cross the intimacy line of kissing her clients, only to make an exception with the dashing Richard Gere.
In hindsight, it may not have been the best reference point. Camille says: “That movie says that there is a ‘good’ world, and a ‘bad’ world. The ‘bad’ world is where you are a prostitute, but you can access the ‘good’ world [of the] rich, white man.
"We tried to do the opposite – there is no ‘good’ life and there is no ‘bad’ life.” While Camille is keen not to damn prostitution — Leo isn’t necessarily looking to be 'saved' – he does not shy away from the ever-present dangers that face those who find themselves in the trade.
Which brings me to Sauvage’s most shocking moment, where [spoiler alert] Leo is hired by a gay couple and confronted with a giant butt plug, an encounter so squirm-inducingly awful that it reportedly sparked walkouts from screenings.
“I can understand,” accepts Camille of how the scene can make for uncomfortable viewing. "[But] hustling is dangerous. I had a scene where [Leo] was taken hostage in an apartment but I came up with this idea [instead] of ‘I’m the client, I pay, so I’m allowed to do anything’.
"He considers the person in front of him not as human but as a toy, an object from Amazon.”
Félix also defends the scene. “What’s interesting is that it gives information that is important to the character. It shows that once he has a contract [with a client], a link with somebody, he is going to do it to the end. Even if he is suffering, he says, ‘Yes, I like it’.”
That said, the 26-year-old up-and-comer, who bares his body on multiple occasions in the film, admits that the intensity of the shoot did take a toll on him.
“I was really involved in the character,” he reflects, “it took me two weeks [after filming] before I was myself again – when you give yourself to somebody [like Leo], I’m not stronger than him, it was like a possession.”
So, how did Félix unwind? “Massage. [I had] to [be] good to my body [after] scenes where I’m being manipulated by people, and naked in front of everyone." Not that the Frenchman is shy about peeling off his clothes for his craft.
“My body is my way to create something for art, politics, desire [and] pleasure. When you’re an artist, you give everything you have.
"There are many artists who go far with their bodies. Full-frontal naked? This is nothing.”
As the interview begins to wind down, conversation shifts to the subject of sexuality within the industry, a sticking point for an impassioned Félix, a gay man, as he opens up about his fear of being typecast.
“I don’t care about being gay. Sucking dick is not something [important] in life. The problem is, in France, they can’t imagine you otherwise.
"I don’t want to be a gay character all my life [because] I’m gay already. If the movie is good, I don’t care if they’re straight, gay or bisexual.
“The people who put something on [my sexuality], we are not on the same level. I’m on another level, so they can either follow or go fuck themselves.”
Sauvage is out now in selected cinemas in the UK. Watch the trailer below: