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A tough, intriguing and visceral study of a young homeless gay hustler facing his realities with a startling twist. Starring Félix Maritaud, Sauvage is about someone looking for love in all the wrong places. What’s special about the film is how Camille Vidal-Naquet refuses to moralise about sex work by finding tender moments of intimacy, desire and longing.

Sauvage normalises not just gay sex but also sex work without overlooking the problems it can lead to, nor erasing the beautiful connections it can bring. For his moving feature debut, the French director offers an unprecedented and sensual ode to freedom. We sit down with him the day after the first screening in Spain as part of Fire!!, a Barcelona-based LGTBQ+ film festival, before it was launched on Spanish cinemas last Friday. .

The male body tends to be sexualised on the big screen to create an image of the hero, the leading man. Sauvage, however, is a film that bucks the trend, presenting the hardly-ever seen reality of life as a male sex worker. It paints a portrait of Léo as he looks for love in a world that only wants sex. How did you come up with such story? What was the starting point?
The starting point was the character itself; a protagonist that was a bit like the one I developed in my previous short movies. It’s always this young guy in his twenties, lost in a brutal world looking for love. This time, I really wanted to talk about an outcast, someone who was completely outside the rules of society and who didn’t own anything. I just wanted somebody who doesn’t have any belongings – he always wears the same clothes, he doesn’t have an apartment and he doesn't even have a phone. It was this character that I was attracted to.
What I had in mind was an energic young man walking alone in some dark streets looking for love, going from one encounter to another. This led me to the first universe: people living in the street. It wasn’t prostitution in the first place, it was just homeless people, but since this character was dying to have contact with someone, it naturally led me to that theme of male street hustling. But it was important to me that it was about people living in the street, as it was the first thing that came to my mind for this character. I didn’t start from a sociological idea; I didn’t say, ‘I’m gonna document people somehow related to prostitution’, or ‘I’m gonna make a film about prostitution’. I just wanted to make a film about that guy, that character.
As a filmmaker, you had made previous shorts about men who find themselves increasingly isolated by their circumstances link in Backstage or Mauvaise Tête. Sauvage is your feature film debut of someone looking for love in all the wrong places, a character study about somebody who is alone. There certainly is a common thread with your previous film productions, in what way do these topics relate to you?
The themes in my previous short movies aren’t exactly the same, but being abandoned is always something that I find interesting. Also, I think I’m very interested in talking about invisible workers – people that you know exist, but nobody can say exactly what their daily life is like. Everybody knows that people hustle, everybody knows that women hustle, but not everybody knows that men hustle as well, and very few people know some guy who hustles in the streets. We don’t know exactly how do they live – what time or where do they wake up, how many clients do they have per day, etc. Exploring these sort of invisible works that nobody really wants to see is what interests me.
Yesterday, I was in a Q&A. I talked about the two years and a half that I had spent on the streets with these guys, and somebody said about the film, ‘It is weird that you do that in your film because it doesn’t exist anymore’. That was weird because I was just telling about my experience, I’m telling you that yes, it does still exist. But some people don’t want to believe it, they don’t want to know. They think that everyone hustles on the Internet through their phones. And yes, people who have the money to buy one, they probably do. But when you don’t have enough to eat, you don’t have a smartphone.
What is your earliest cinema memory?
I think any memory would be related to childhood. Actually, I have one, it’s of Walt Disney’s The Rescuers. I remember that in one of the film’s latest scenes, there is a girl helped by two mice looking for a huge diamond. She is in a cave around the sea so the water is coming in. I think there is something extremely impressive in that scene, like the movement of the waves coming up and going down. She finally finds the diamond in a skull (a human skull). 
I remember this entire scene because I was fascinated by that skull thing. And it’s true that in my short movie Mauvaise Tête, the story is about somebody stealing a human head from a medicine university. I’ve always been fascinated by skulls and all these gothic elements, so these could be a good early memory.

“Once the dramaturgical arch was set, I went to meet the young boys of the Bois de Boulogne as part of an association - and spent three years with them. As I met and interacted with them, I was constantly fleshing out my script. I wanted to show these boys’ life, concretely; these ‘invisible’ workers, who we know exist, although we don’t exactly know what their daily life is like”, you once said. Would you say that there are some documentary aspects in Sauvage?
I would say it is documented, but we never used words like ‘realism’ or ‘documentary’ during the shooting. Some people tend to think of a film as a documentary when it uses a hand-held camera because it seems real, but Sauvage is a fiction. The character is totally made-up; I never met someone like him, I just created him. And since the beginning, the intention was to always make a fiction. But because I spent a lot of time talking to the boys, it is well documented.
Léo, the protagonist, is a character that doesn’t desire money; he never counts the money he earns, we never see him spending anything, he is not attached to anything material. How did you create and shape such uninhibited character?
To me, it was interesting to imagine someone who’s above the rules that we know. With this character, I invite people to live a different life. I’ve noticed that many people are very judgmental when it comes to prostitution and, in general, in people living a different life. Some people have always something to say – if they mind, if they don’t mind, if they like it, etc. – but… nobody is asking you. People just exist; some people who are different from you exist. And this is what I had in mind: this character who has his own life, which is totally different from mine, and who’s very strong and solid.
I find interesting to write about a character that, at first sight, you think will be weaker than the others. Léo isn’t strong, he can’t fight physically and people abuse him, but in the end, you see that he’s still standing. Léo is stronger than the other ones. He has something that brings light into this world. Also – and this is weird when it happens –, I sometimes didn’t understand myself when I was writing because of the reactions he had. But it was his instinct. I think it is very interesting when you are surprised by a character; you feel like he has to do it but he escapes you a little bit, you don’t control him totally.
Sauvage is also a film that deals with the issue of solitude. Léo enjoys absolute freedom, with all the terrifying and admirable aspects that it entails. It is also a story of incredible inner strength, Léo never complains about his job or his living conditions. How do you hope to inspire the viewers, or how do you expect them to react?
I’ve always considered that when the movie is done, it is not mine anymore, so I leave it up to people. That’s the beauty of it, they can do what they want with it. But I was just hoping people to react a bit differently this time, not to act with their point of view but to try to avoid the traditional judgement. I’m not saying prostitution is bad and I’m not saying it is good either. I don’t have a clue, I don’t know. It’s not my life, it’s the life of someone else.
I think it’s very interesting to give visibility to it, and the most important thing is not to judge and say what this guy should or shouldn’t do. I expect people to spend time with him like I did with these guys and to be aware that this kind of job exists, that this kind of situation exists in our society, and that this kind of character has a lot to teach us. And, of course, I’m hoping people to be touched by the character because I think he has a powerful capacity of love in him.

In Sauvage, the bodies of the actors serve as a tool to communicate more than words can. I’ve read that you organised a choreographic workshop previous to the filming in order to teach the actors to use and to be at ease with their body since it’s a very graphic film. What was the greatest challenge you had to face during the filming?
I’m sure that the main challenge is the same that every director has to face: to have the energy to keep moving, to keep going on. Honestly, I think it is the first time I did something so demanding; I knew it would be, but not to that extent. In the end, I was just counting the days and hours remaining. I was so tired, it took so much strength.
I understand that because you have to be working non-stop and can’t fail.
Exactly. What is difficult is that you don’t have a choice, you have to be operational all the time and be in control of everything. Sometimes, you have the temptation of saying, ‘It could be better but I’m so tired’, but you can’t do that. I’ve always thought that it’s the duty of the director to be sure that you get the best from the actors. They are giving you their trust. They’re trusting you when making a film and you don’t have the right to say, ’It could be better but let’s move on’. I only stop when I know I can’t be better, maybe they can, but I personally cannot bring him or her higher than I did.
What was the casting like? Félix Maritaud carries a real immersive performance on the big screen. He’s absolutely brilliant. How did you know he was the one for such role?
I was looking for someone younger actually. I thought that the protagonist had to be very young – around seventeen or something like that. Félix was twenty-two or twenty-three when we shot the film, still very young. At first, I wanted someone with a very slim, skinny body, a bit ill-looking. But Félix is well-built, with tattoos everywhere; he has a body that checks all the boxes of ‘masculinity’, so I thought he would be too strong for this role.
What I found interesting is that the tenderness and fragility I wanted, he had them in the way he walks, the way he moves, the way he performs. So I thought the contrast of his strong body and the fragile way he was acting was interesting. I knew he was the one because he had it all. He read the script and called me back, and by the way he talked about it, I knew he had understood it. He was just talking about how it is possible to communicate all of these emotions without talking – the character doesn’t talk much –, so he was asking questions about this. He wasn’t afraid and he is someone that never judges his performance; he is just giving it and he doesn’t care if it’s right or wrong, and that is very precious.

Sauvage also revolves around the question of our mentality towards people living in the streets these days. What’s your own personal moral on this topic? Did your perspective change after creating the film? Maybe it was a bit more conservative and now it’s opened?
I never have conservative ideas! (Laughs) I don’t have anything to say really. Don’t get me wrong, but if you asked me what’s my idea on bakers, what would I have to say? They are just there, you know, that’s exactly the same. But to answer your question more precisely, it’s true that I didn’t know that in the city I live in, Paris, there were places where there are no rules at all and people are not protected by anyone. Because in Paris, you are protected by the police. Or if you’re ill, you can call an ambulance. But there, if you are attacked or hit or somebody is stealing you, you can’t call the police. Most of them are hustling, most of them don’t have IDs, they are unprotected and it’s a very savage, brutal world. I thought it existed somewhere, it was very abstract, and I said, ‘Oh my god, no, it’s in Paris, under my windows’, and I had never seen it before.
That’s quite alarming I think. But the other thing is that I always hear people giving advice – everybody has an opinion, discuss if it should be legal or not, etc. But me personally, I had questions before, and after spending more than two years with these people, I have even more questions. This is such a complex topic that I believe I should spend ten years to start to know how the law should look like. But I’m not a politician, I’m not a sociologist; I’m a filmmaker, so I’m using cinema to give visibility. I think this is the political message of the film: just be aware, spend some time – even if a few hours – with these people that I’m sure you’ve never heard of before, and try not to pass judgement. Just consider that they’re workers, that they are here. It’s a fact and you don’t have anything to say.
This being just your first feature film, how was the overall experience compared to directing a short film?
Strangely enough, I thought it was easier financially speaking. With the shorts, it was hell to get money. But apart from that, this time it was much more demanding. With a short movie, there are nine or ten days of shooting; this time, there were thirty days – I didn’t know how I was going to do that. And of course, the big difference is that when the movie is over, it becomes public, and so it doesn’t belong to you anymore, and that’s really weird.
And how do you feel about it?
I was pretty intimidated at the beginning, especially because the film was premiered in Cannes. It was fantastic but the weeks before, you are just thinking, ‘The film is gonna be released brutally in front of the whole world all of a sudden’, so it’s wonderful but very intimidating. In particular with this film, which is very intimate.
Now that you’re finishing the festival tour with Sauvage, what are your plans for the future?
I’ve been travelling for almost one year with this film. It’s a wonderful experience and it’s great to meet audiences from different countries, but the film is going to go on by itself now. I’m not sure it needs me anymore, so I’m beginning to feel like I want to move on. I’m finishing a documentary that I started before Sauvage, and now, I have to get back to shooting, which is what I’m doing next week. It is about people working with the dead.
That’s interesting, they’re ‘invisible’ workers in a way as well, even though we’re visibly surrounded by them.
It’s about them because I’ve always wondered how is the life of people working with the dead all day long like. I was interested in how people deal with the dead in a big city like Paris, where there are thousands of them. I mean, how do you deal with all of these dead bodies? It’s extremely interesting, I’m learning a lot from these people. And with the same producer of Sauvage, we are developing a second fiction film. I almost have the first draft, but I have to finish the documentary before.

Marina Pérez
Viridiana Morandini

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