Wednesday 13 March 2019

Skin trade: "Sauvage"

Sauvage presents as absolutely The Kind of Film Only The French Could Make (and Make This Well): an uninhibited study of male sex work, and the toll it takes, that manages to be funny, frank and pretty fearless without seeming to make a single jot of fuss about it. Boundaries are pushed and crossed, indoors and out, internally and externally, from the confounding opening scene, which begins as one thing, develops into another, and is finally revealed as something else entirely. With those very fluid red lines established, writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet relocates her protagonist, an altogether mucky-looking bit of rough named Leo (Félix Maritaud, from 120 BPM) to the unprepossessing scrap of wasteland on the outskirts of Strasbourg where he plies his trade. It's here that, one nondescript afternoon, Leo locks eyes with Ahd (Éric Bernard), a burly older hustler working the other side of the road - and the framing is not just striking but telling, for while some attraction develops between this pair, they remain opposites. Where the boyish, vulnerable Leo kisses his clients on the mouth and throws himself into each new opportunity with a similar openness, Ahd is wary and self-disciplined, keen to get out of the game while he still can. The relationship is, we quickly gather, the closest Leo has had to stability in his time on the streets, so when Ahd lands himself a degree of security as the live-in lover of a sugar daddy, his junior partner is understandably bereft, and sent spiralling anew.

As this tortured love story establishes, the film is not without a strain of melodrama. It may be the first French artefact since certain 19th century novels to invoke TB as a narrative device; Leo's universe encompasses both a wicked villain (a cruising sadist glimpsed in shadow and referred to as The Pianist: "He's into blood and torture") and a dashing silver fox who may just rescue our ingenue from the void he spends much of the film circling. Yet it's possessed of a convincing idea of drift, which grounds it. The film Sauvage most recalls isn't Stranger by the Lake or anything by Jacques Nolot (though there are encounters here that wouldn't look out of place thereabouts), but Agnes Varda's Vagabonde. It's never apparent that Leo has anything even approaching a fixed address: twice, he's seen washing his face in puddles, and when one of his clients remarks he's "fucking filthy", he's not talking about Leo's performance in the sack. Mostly, Vidal-Naquet shows him shambling from assignation to assignation, eternally at the mercy of the marketplace, with long stretches spent back at that wasteland-limbo waiting for someone, anyone to pull up to the kerb. No surprise that our boy should have developed a pretty prodigious and varied drug habit; when a health professional offers him help to get clean, Leo wonders "To do what?"

That aimless short-termism might have provided a problem for a 90-minute feature, but Maritaud's vital performance insists there is still a soul at stake here - that this kid isn't that far gone - and Vidal-Naquet instils even scenes of timekilling with some thematic purpose: what might have made for grim viewing instead becomes illuminating. At one point, we see the hustlers gathered in the scrub outside an airport and watching the planes taking off. The anecdote points up their own lack of mobility, yes, but there's also childlike awe in their gaze; they look upon the planes as if they'd never seen such wonders. A subplot about the influx of Eastern European hustlers offering cutprice blowjobs speaks to the diligence of the filmmaker's research: we get a sense of how the market operates and regulates itself, and who the winners and losers are in this process. Throughout, Vidal-Naquet keeps a close eye on Leo, hence the recurrence of physical examinations as a motif: she wants her protagonist to stay healthy, even as she shows us the behaviour that puts him at risk. The surgery scenes actually yield Sauvage's most moving gesture, as Leo leans in to give the female doctor examining him a hug, as if she were the mother he's been missing all along.

For all that the character's work might be deemed adult - and the film never once shies away from the particulars of what consenting adults with purchasing power might get up to in their parlours and bedrooms; with a prominent supporting role for a buttplug roughly the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Giza, it earns its 18 certificate - the tousle-haired Maritaud gives the impression of a child abandoned at the side of the road, wearing the same clothes for days on end, puffing disconsolately on his asthma inhaler, falling in with the wrong crowd. (It is almost certain that part of his preparation for the role involved swerving fruit and vegetables for several months.) There's a word missing from that title, one that proves key to the poignancy of this character study, and which makes sense of the film's final image - and that word is l'enfant. Towards the end, Vidal-Naquet's camera finds Leo shifting on a designer yellow sofa in a well-furnished apartment, looking bored and antsy: he's meant to be comfortable at this point, but still we fear he might return to old habits. Here as elsewhere, and in the absence of anybody else caring to do likewise, the filmmaker watches over this bruised yet defiantly unbroken boy with an uncommon tenderness.

Sauvage is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon.

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