The portrayal of sex workers in film frequently borders on the fantastical, to the extent that even the most miserablist depictions feel divorced from a comparatively humdrum reality. The two most famous roles (Julia Roberts’ star making turn in Pretty Woman, and Catherine Deneuve’s unhappy housewife who becomes Belle de Jour) don’t exactly offer convincing depictions of the world’s oldest profession. One originated as a gritty tale about class but became a spin on the My Fair Lady formula, while Luis Bunuel’s film is far more preoccupied with probing a woman’s sexual desires than the need to drastically transition in to such a profession.
On paper, Sauvage, the directorial debut of Camille Vidal-Naquet, seems like it would tread in similar water. It doesn’t compromise in its portrayal the gritty, harsh realities many sex workers have to contend with, but it’s similarly defined by a premise that seems tangential to a responsible portrayal of the profession - a gay sex worker whose desire to find love appears to be the sole reason he continues to sell his body on the streets. Fortunately, the film doesn’t pull its punches with regards to the pursuit of this impossible dream. It’s unsparingly bleak, but doesn’t offer miserablism without a deeper purpose. It understands the economic necessity that leads many people to take drastic action in this manner, and by contrasting it with the lead character’s naive search for something meaningful amidst the chaos, offers something more meaningful than the exploitation the film may seem like at face value.
22 year old Leo (Félix Maritaud) is a lonely sex worker, who has been in the self appointed role for a considerable amount of time before we’re introduced to him. He also differs in his approach towards his clients than others - he has no problem with kissing them, albeit only if the moment “feels right”. This approach alienates a fellow, unnamed sex worker, who Leo clearly has feelings for, due to his idealised fantasy that he’d be able to make a deeper connection with somebody while fulfilling a mere transactional service.
The plot is slim, and frequently episodic, wading from one explicit yet depressing sexual encounter to the next and painting a portrait of how numbing sex can feel when all you care about is making a deeper connection. Some moments are more powerful than others; a tender, affectionate encounter with an old man chasing the same thing as Leo comes to a palpable conclusion, depicting a fleeting glimpse of contentment for two people who will likely never see each other again. Then there’s the counterpoint to this, a grim threesome involving an angry man with erectile dysfunction and a sex toy that would leave a less experienced person needing the use of a wheelchair for weeks afterwards.
As audacious as many of these scenes are, eventually they add up to a weird form of monotony; we know Leo’s quest for romantic happiness is doomed from the get go, and that his romantic idealism often sabotages his approach to sex work, leading to a struggle for money that feels inevitable from the first act. It feels realistic to depict sex work in this manner, yet from a dramatic point of view, it does become increasingly hard to remain invested - especially when the lead character never develops beyond how he was initially established. Félix Maritaud’s performance is undeniably the main reason to seek this out; following supporting roles in Cannes favourites 120 Beats Per Minute and Knife + Heart, he’s established himself as one of the few openly gay actors who’s able to get cast in gay roles, playing a diverse range of characters that’s unlikely to see him typecast in gay parts for his entire career. He’s an exciting new performer, and this is the best showcase for his talents yet.