Can’t Buy Me Love: “Sauvage/Wild”

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“You were made to be loved,” Ahd (Eric Bernard) tells Léo (Félix Maritaud) just a day before he’s about the leave the country, cementing his absence from the same plane of existence as Léo. Long the object of affection for the passive, yearnful, almost puppy-eyed Léo, Ahd is, for the intents and purposes of Sauvage/Wild, directed by Camille Vidal-Naquet an all but explicitly said gay4pay street hustler who has since left the street and traded the unsustainable, unpredictable life cruising for clients on roads outside of Paris for the comfortable living room and gated flat world of being a kept boy, a bourgeois paradise. It’s a trade-off, a transaction, as all sex and love is. But, as much as Ahd is inclined to encourage Léo that he was “made to be loved”, he is, for the bulk of Sauvage/Wild the one loving.

There is an inherent inequity in love and sex, whether it’s starkly stated or more subtle and ineffable. There are the class discrepancies that exist between the broken-bodied, but almost saintly spirited  Léo and his clients, who are almost always wealthier by a considerable margin, but there is the more tenuously defined transactional nature of all of his relationships. Though he is being paid, it seems that Léo is always the one loving, the one yearning for connection, however transient. He never counts the money from his sessions or encounters, the money alone is enough, a suggestion of worth that seems paltry in comparison to Vidal-Naquet’s insistence that Léo will always give warmth and intimacy and radiance that implies an authenticity of emotion and presence that no other hustler can imagine. He’ll always give more and receive less, and he’ll always go through different hurdles and traumas, big and small, to make him feel alive.  

Vidal-Naquet, conflating gritty romanticism with humane anthropological study of homeless sex workers, has essentially made his version of Nights of Cabiria, that Federico Fellini film from 1957 about the prostitute (Giulietta Masina) who, too, is lovelorn, in possession of such a golden heart that her love and love of wanting to love is near transcendent. She, also, gets the short end of the stick with clients, scammed and emotionally battered. But Sauvage doesn’t really have a gay male equivalent of a Cabiria, exactly, however arresting a unique and angular face Maritaud may have. Léo is too pliant and too much an assemblage of ideas, a sex working cipher with too little interiority to constitute a character that exists beyond the elusive, contradictory loner longing to be loved archetype. So, he goes from one client to the next, unable to find a mutual sense of exchange between he and another person, finds himself abused and bursting at the seams. But those encounters begin to feel increasingly redundant, even at their most grueling. They don’t tell us any more about Léo than the work Maritaud is doing and the little information we’re given; we have little sense of who he is beyond those boundaries. Maritaud is good, particularly in dance club scenes, explosive in his energy and able to convey in his body language more about his relationship to bodies, his own and others, than in other scenes. But it’s such a dialed down performance and character, besides his Movie Cough, and little else of his performance implies a complexity or intricacy in character psychology. Tonally, too, Sauvage digs its heels in a self-serious unanchored approach, which, again, gives little insight into Léo, and locks him and the film in place, preventing it from exploring other tones or ideas. (Basically, you’ll never get anything magisterial or swooning here.) And you won’t find the same bittersweetness at the end, just a facsimile of it. No spiritual ecstasy here.

The film’s sheer explicitness is an impressively shallow distraction from the slight quality of the film, from its dubious class politics (multiple times, it suggested that the way to get out of this life is to become a kept boy, that such a status is aspirational to anyone), from its condescension. It’s never made clear why Léo is a street hustler, why specifically he is a street hustler, why there’s no presence of any other mediating or mitigating factors. We barely understand what exactly his feelings about sex work are, not even ambivalence. It’s never expressly or thoughtfully interrogated what the topography of the turf is, of Paris more broadly, in relation to a topography of desire, of male bodies, of eroticism. There’s lots of sex, but it’s the kind of provocation that’s like a Chinese finger bind; call it out, and you’re made to look like a prude, as if trying to break down and understand the kind of sex had on screen, and its broader implications, makes you a goody two shoes. That Léo is obviously an authentic beast, that even the closest to playing a role in a sexual scenario is still him playing himself, is also left unexamined. That he happens to be a pure and innocent creature, and yet one who can’t be tamed by the world of domesticity, is apparently a given.

The tropey habits and emotionally (and physically) harrowing elements of Sauvage aren’t bad in and of themselves, but the problem is not only does much of the film, after one has sifted through the graphic sex, have a staleness to it, but too much of the film seems somewhat brainless, driven by an idea of melancholy and desire, of the power dynamics between the loving and the loved, and loneliness as laudatory strength. But it’s all sweaty surface, unwilling or unable to plumb the depths of how the politics of love is complicated by the politics of work, how sex is problematized by transaction, and how truly, viscerally longing shapes all of that. Sauvage is unable to handle the contradictions and complexities of both the intellectual and emotional baggage of the subject and its lead, and, unfortunately, I’m not buying what the film is selling.

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