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The feature film Sauvage/Wild, by writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet is a breakthrough drama telling the story of street-level male sex-workers in France. The story covers expected territory—clubbing, drugs, victimization (on both sides)—but avoids pushy messages and morality decrees that have plagued similar narratives. This story feels personal, not general.

Léo (Félix Maritaud) is an impishly handsome 22-year-old with a small frame, wiry build, and a cute, turned-up nose, elfin eyebrows, and ears. The actor’s naturalistic delivery is a major driver of this film and doesn’t feel rehearsed or coached. There’s no hesitation, and the action falls forward in ways that don’t feel intentional or planned. Underscoring Léo’s adorable quality is the tendency of other characters to refer to him as draga, which translates as dear.”

Félix Maritaud’s performance garnered him the “Rising Star Award” at Cannes 2018. The young actor also had prominent roles in BPM (2018) and Knife+Heart (2017).

There’s a heart-tugging, stray-puppy quality to Léo that begs to be rescued and nurtured. That dynamic carries throughout the film. Despite any debasement he endures, Léo has a tender quality that persists. A great deal of what motivates him is the pursuit of affection and love, even though he doesn’t know what to do when it appears.

Among the most memorable scenes is Léo’s examination by a woman doctor, who is about the age his mother might be. He’s in bad shape, and she asks where he sleeps, when he last slept, drugs, sexual partners, and if he wants to change. Without pause, Léo asks, Why would I? Their interaction is tender movie magic. The amount of character definition achieved is vast, and it’s done without sap.

Sauvage/Wild isn’t shy about the abuses and degradation of Léo’s occupation. He seems to accept it as part of a job well-done, but he’s crushed when a client stiffs him. It’s as if nothing that is said or done to him is as degrading as being cheated.

The film is subtle about portraying Léo’s desire for his fellow hustler Ahd (Éric Bernard), a swarthy, brawny lad, who is the closest to a friend that Léo has. Ahd is sometimes protective of Léo and often impatient.

Ahd asks why Léo kisses clients. Léo is naïve and doesn’t quite understand the problem. Ahd points out that if Léo likes it, he’ll never want to stop. Ahd says softly, “You’re made to be loved.”

Ahd is an intriguing and unpredictable character. Gay-for-pay, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to reaffirm his heterosexuality. His connection with Léo feels brotherly in many ways: bonded and easily annoyed.

Writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet doesn’t define geography of where this film takes place. He also doesn’t create origin stories to tell us how Léo, Ahd, and others ended up doing what they do to scrape an existence.

The fates of Vidal-Naquet’s ensemble are as hazy as their backstories. This film is an observational visit during which Vidal-Naquet achieves an amazing feat: he makes palpable the phenomenal boredom that weighs on street hustlers, but it’s never monotonous for the audience.

Rating: NR (profanity, nudity, sex, physical conflict)

Running time: 99 minutes

Images courtesy of Sauvage/Wild