Film history is chock full of men falling in love with the ‘whore with a heart of gold,’ either to the effect of their own ruin (Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel), the ruin of the woman (Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!), or, less likely, a happily ever-after (Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman). Sauvage, the directorial debut from French filmmaker Camille Vidal-Naquet, seeks to turn that trope on its head, framing it through a decidedly queer lens: gay escort Léo (Félix Maritaud) shuns the expectations of his trade by seeking intimacy with his clients rather than simply selling his body. “You’re made to be loved,” Léo’s friend and fellow escort, Ahd (Éric Bernard), advises him, and it’s an idea that Léo takes to heart, as he offers services that go beyond mere sex. For Léo, prostitution is as much about his own search for love as it is a career. The problem is that he’s fallen in love with Ahd, who isn’t so much gay as a straight ‘gay-for-pay’ opportunist looking for an older sugar daddy to take care of him. As such, Léo’s search for love puts him on a self-destructive path, in a world where intimacy is merely an illusion.
To his credit, Vidal-Naquet never judges the sex-workers at the center of his story, framing the profession not as some sort of sexual and emotional prison, but rather as a realization of his protagonist’s desires. Léo is a prostitute because he enjoys it, but also because it provides a means to help satisfy a deeper need for human connection. Sex means something to Léo, even if he’s being paid for it, and the line between the fantasy he creates for his clients and the reality in his heart soon becomes dangerously blurred. Sauvage bears more than a passing resemblance to other recent queer films, such as Stranger by the Lake, Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, and especially, God’s Own Country, each distinguished by their frank sexuality and exploration of the intersection between intimacy and intercourse. Yet by centering his film around one man, Vidal-Naquet pulls the focus inward on Léo’s own emotional journey, recalling Eric Rohmer’s wry exploration of the fickle nature of young love in his first Moral Tale, The Bakery Girl of Monceau. While the film certainly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, Maritaud’s remarkable performance as Léo is wholly his own, as inscrutable as it is expressive, embodying a sense of longing in a 22-year-old man who has few close friends and desperately seeks connection in others. Vidal-Naquet boldly charts his protagonist’s sense of inner turmoil and insecurity. The result is a film that isn’t necessarily as emotionally satisfying as it is enigmatic, a conundrum as unsure of itself as its protagonist, yet somehow wildly, hauntingly beautiful.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 4.