With a master’s degree in literature, writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet broke onto the international film scene directing shorts. First was an experimental work, entirely in sign language, called Génie. He followed that with his first fiction films, Backstage and Heady Stuff. While teaching film analysis, he managed to write and direct his first feature-length film.
A premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (quote an honor for a first-time feature director), Sauvage/Wild takes us on the riveting and vibrant erotic journey of a 22-year-old male prostitute named Leo (Felix Maritaud). Leo trades in love as much as lust and wanders through his life without rules or restrictions. Through a series of encounters that offer a glimpse into the complicated and visceral world of male sex work, Leo finds himself searching for affection anywhere he can get it – whether it’s the unrequited love for his hustler friend Ahd (Eric Bernard) or in the arms of an older, vulnerable client. Will Leo choose his freedom and the dangers that come with it, or the comforts of a stable relationship? After all, in this unpredictable world, who knows where he’ll end up?
INTERVIEW WITH WRITER/DIRECTOR CAMILLE VIDAL-NAQUET
How did the film come about?
I started out with a character, an energy. A solitary young man who hits the road and wanders from one encounter to the next, longing for love, driven by an unquenchable capacity for love that keeps him going, regardless of the violent world around him.
I wrote a first draft of the script and went to meet young male prostitutes at the Bois de Boulogne (a well-known location for prostitution in Paris), by joining a charity. I meant to participate only in a few roams but night after night, strong bonds were forged and I ended up spending three years there. Meanwhile, all these encounters nourished the writing tremendously.
What’s so striking about the film is that, despite all the violent things Leo has to go through, a profound gentleness emerges.
Leo uses tricks as a way to seize moments of sweetness whenever he can, to kiss someone, or to take a man in his arms. He doesn’t share the cynicism or detachment of his fellow workers. Indeed, they reproach him for his attitude, which they perceive as a lack of professionalism. They are here to make money, whereas Leo takes his pleasure wherever he finds it.
Unlike the others, Leo says: “I do kiss”. Leo doesn’t crave money: He never counts the cash he earns, we never see him spending anything. It was really important to me to show that he isn’t attached to anything material. He is elsewhere.
One of the rare things he doesn’t give away is his first name…
From the very first draft, I wanted not a single young man on the street to be named. As if their secret identity was their most prized possession. Most of them think of prostitution as an actor playing a part: for a few minutes, they become someone else, in a role that is different for each client. Their first names are never given in the film, especially Leo’s. When Claude, the client who lives in Canada, asks him his name, he just answers: “Call me what you want”. At some point I considered using that line as the film’s title.
Leo is a very lonely character. When he is offered a cellphone, he says he has nobody to call…
But that loneliness is also a strength. Leo enjoys absolute freedom, with all the scary and admirable aspects that come with it. Such freedom is like that of Kerouac when he wrote: “There was nowhere to go but everywhere”. That freedom is like that of Mona in Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi): by refusing to comply with social rules, by refusing anyone to impose anything on him, the character experiences tough life on the street as her own normality. In my film, Leo never complains about his work or his living conditions.
Leo is an enigmatic character, we don’t know anything about his background…
The film doesn’t invite you to try and understand how and why Leo has ended up here, but rather to live with him, to share the dizzying moments of his journey. It’s a quite sensory experience: what I wanted was to reproduce head on and make the audience experience the feeling of bedazzlement and disorientation that comes with exclusion.
During the writing process, did you have other film characters in mind?
Besides Mona in Vagabond, I thought about Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke: this dreamy guy, out of touch with reality, who finds himself in jail among real thugs. Luke is a misfit, a poet of sorts, but he is fearless, he puts up with violence and humiliations and always gets back on his feet. There is a radiant quality about him, he lights up that bleak environment. I was struck by this character who never loses heart. He looks frail, you wouldn’t bet on him, yet eventually he holds on until the end, unlike the others, who don’t have his stamina or his capacity for resilience. His strength comes from his humanity and the joy he spreads around him. Similarly, in Sauvage, Leo, with his innocence and his often childish behavior, is out of sync in this environment where everybody has toughened up and is fighting to survive. At first we think that he won’t make it, but his radiance, his fortitude makes him one of the toughest guys out there.
Leo and Ahd have a really special relationship, are they a couple?
Ahd, who is played by Eric Bernard, has evolved a lot in the screenplay, he has become more and more important. Ahd loves Leo like a brother. But unlike Leo, he is judgmental. To him, prostitution is a world against which he fights, from which he wants to run, that he wants to forget. He just wants one thing: to get out of it. When the female doctor asks Leo to stop crack and do something else, it’s not that he disagrees with her, it’s just that he doesn’t even know what she is talking about. Leo has no moral judgement: he is just there. That’s his life. He doesn’t even know what “get out of it” means: get out of what, to go where? So Ahd sees Leo as the guy who is holding him back in a world he wishes to run away from.
The film addresses our relationship with our bodies: how we mistreat them, how we do them good, how we take care of them…
Bodies, skin, hands are ever-present in the film. Unlike the escorts working on the internet, the young men who live and prostitute themselves on the street don’t have easy access to hygiene, food, not to mention sleep. Therefore their bodies are often in pain, damaged, lacking the necessary attention and care. Yet their bodies remain objects of desire. The challenge was to reconcile these two aspects effectively in the film.
The color grading process played a crucial part here: depending on scenes we managed to precisely attune skin shades, warmth and textures, sometimes pushing characters to the edge of eroticism, or quite the opposite, going towards much rawer, almost sickly looking skins. The actors’ skin says a lot about what they are going through in the film.
Moreover, I wanted to film nudity and make it seem normal, ordinary. These young men expose their bodies simply because they are their work tools. I have watched Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls and Turkish Delight again and again. I have always been impressed with the way Verhoeven directed his actors and managed to convey that sense of shamelessness and automatic freedom of the body. During the preparatory phase, before the shooting, I asked choreographer Romano Bottinelli to prepare the actors’ bodies. Indeed the actors had to appear in perfect control, they needed to find a distance with their bodies, their intimacy. They had to learn, as fast as possible, to use their body as a tool, without showing any sign of embarrassment or hesitation. And above all, it was crucial that their body language should be different from that of the clients, who didn’t receive any physical training before the shooting. Therefore, in the film, clients are much less graceful than street boys, their bodies look heavier, clumsier.
Leo’s body is often mistreated, hurt, it shows how hard street life can be. Still his body often looks strong, powerful and free in the film. When he dances, sweating, in club scenes, we can feel his energy, his stamina, that inner living force. The shooting was extremely strenuous for Felix.
The film shows many different situations in the trick scenes: from a furtive blowjob in a car to a whole night spent with a client, without sex, just to keep him company…
I wanted to portray the daily life of street sex workers. And the pace of that daily life is set by a succession of sex acts. When we say “turn a trick”, we avoid naming precisely the sex act. We know that his reality exists, without picturing it precisely. These young men are “invisible” workers, we don’t want to see them, and the city excludes them violently, but cannot do without them. The film shows how life is for these young men whose sexuality has become their work. They are the ones who have to deal with city dwellers’ violent fantasies, they know the sexual preferences of some clients, the absolute loneliness of others, the frustration, but also forms of sexuality that are never shown or talked about, like that of the disabled or the elderly, for instance.
Finally, the great diversity of tricks tells us a lot about Leo himself: they reveal his tenderness, his tendency to be moved easily, to give himself away, but also sometimes his recklessness, his lack of discernment, his childish side, that seems so out of place in his line of work. When he meets Claude, we see how he tries to look like some of his colleagues: he is cold, mechanical, cynical. At this moment, he is trying to be a “real” professional, like his fellow workers.
Was the casting process long before you chose Felix Maritaud, who carries the whole film on his shoulders from beginning to end?
I met Felix quite early on in the casting process. He had just finished the shooting of BPM (Beats Per Minute), the editing was still on the way. I hadn’t seen any image of the film. Our complicity was immediate. What impressed me the most about him is that he isn’t afraid of anything. He can do anything, get completely lost in his character, whatever the scene, without watching himself play. Felix is a really instinctive actor; on set he throws himself into the scene, whereas I am careful, I move slowly, I hesitate… Yet, even though we took different paths, we always followed the same direction.
Your directing is quite heterogeneous, with at the same time fly-on-the-wall types of scenes, and others with a much more theatrical quality…
I wanted a form of primitiveness, of instinct to prevail at all times. I chose to work with Jacques Girault because I was much impressed by his precise hand-held camerawork, a device I had chosen for the whole film. We shot with a small crew. I wanted us to have complete liberty to shoot in every angle during takes. We had to feel that the camera was part of the gang, that it belonged somehow.
Then, in order for the image to be accurate, we wanted it to be organic, even rough sometimes, with a textured, swarming effect.
Yet, beside that “wild” way of filming, the writing of the film was really precise, there was very little improvisation during the shooting. I wanted the actors to say their lines without modifying them, and to pronounce them in a way that matched almost exactly the musicality I had in mind. Moreover, we followed a really precise script construction, and our concern was to manage to reconcile that required level of meticulousness in the frames with slightly out of control outbursts of energy, and with my will to film accidents, sudden changes and actors’ impulses.