New Wave godmother Agnès Varda has been laden with any number of honors and tributes in recent years, but she hasn’t received a better one, albeit indirectly so, than “Sauvage.” Even the title of Camille Vidal-Naquet’s tough but invigorating debut feature recalls the unmoored, asphalt-pounding energy of Varda’s seminal 1985 character study “Vagabond,” though the feral human subject here is a gay male prostitute, as hardened by the elements and the travails of his profession as he is vulnerable to them. Played with potent, unpredictable abandon by Félix Maritaud, he’s a protagonist you fear and fear for by turns, as he recklessly roams the streets, nightclubs and backwoods of Strasbourg in search of more than just the physical contact he’s freely selling. Though hardly revolutionary in form, the frank, sometimes violent queerness of its perspective makes his Cannes Critics’ Week entry genuinely bracing: Distributors inclined towards edgier LGBT fare should catch “Sauvage” in the festival wilderness.
On a side note, for anyone who currently associates the word “Sauvage” with Dior’s Johnny Depp-starring cologne campaign of the same name, Vidal-Naquet’s film only underlines its overwrought posing — there’s nothing romanticized or fussily distressed about this portrait of undisciplined masculinity, however beautiful the faces and physiques that inhabit it. Which is not to say “Sauvage” is unremittingly grim: There are fleeting moments of wit, bliss and even tenderness amid the gritty severity, as Vidal-Naquet perceptively portrays not just the lonely, drug-fueled rigors of the hustler lifestyle, but the simultaneously competitive and supportive fraternal community that sustains it.
Our hero is not especially cut out for the brooding lone-wolf act, even if his scuffed, glowering physical appearance suggests otherwise. (Press materials refer to the character as Léo, though he’s pointedly unnamed in the course of the film — as a man who trades on anonymity every day, he isn’t greatly attached to any kind of moniker.) If anything, Léo is a little too personally invested in his prostitution for his own good: He’s hurt when clients rebuff him, and gives a little too much of himself away in exchange not just for money, but for fleeting human connection with men who mostly treat him like a toy. Unlike many of his rent-boy brethren, he takes pride, and even some pleasure, in his work: “It’s like you enjoy being a whore,” his ostensibly gay-for-pay colleague Ahd (Eric Bernard, all swaggering charisma) sneers after Léo voluntarily kisses a john during a three-way job. “So?” comes the reply, in all sincerity.
“Sauvage” opens with a witty bit of wrongfooting that illustrates just how invested Léo gets in his clients’ desires, as what appears to be a doctor’s appointment is revealed as an elaborate role-play exercise. But it’s Ahd who costs him more emotional strain and confusion than anyone else: Léo is helplessly in love with him, and the more his affections are rejected, the more obsessively and destructively they fester. As much as he tries to displace his longings into friendships and comfortable sugar-daddy arrangements, he doesn’t have the acting ability many of his peers do: He can’t fake a feeling, literally for love or money. When a gesture of genuine kindness does come his way, he clings to it with almost primal need. In one beautifully played scene, played in direct contrast to that upended intro, a checkup with a compassionate woman doctor (a brief, lovely performance Marie Seux, the only female presence in this near-overwhelming pileup of testosterone) turns into an instinctive, infant-like lunge for the security of a tender touch.
In his blunt, vivid evocation of Léo’s narrow world, Vidal-Naquet strikes a tricky balance, frankly exposing its dirt-under-the-nails realities without succumbing to luridly exploitative misery porn: The specifics of everything from his crack habit to his sketchy personal hygiene to the abuse he endures on the job are laid bare with take-it-or-leave-it specificity. Likewise, while it has little interest in outright titillation, “Sauvage” is refreshingly straightforward and unvarnished in its explicit depiction of sex and male physicality: It’s a film that scrutinizes male bodies — whether lithely tattooed or creased like crepe paper — with an attentive but uncritical eye. Only one sexual encounter, with a notoriously sadistic, torture-inclined client teased over the course of the film like an angel of death, is kept modestly off-screen: At some point, Vidal-Naquet decides we’ve seen Léo suffer enough.
The director’s close but judgment-free perspective is vitally maintained by Jacques Girault’s grainy but porous handheld lensing, which moves athletically with Léo as he hits the sidewalks or the sticky floors of the gay clubs he frequents for doses of true release: “Sauvage’s” kinetic, blindingly strobe-lit dance scenes may be somewhat expected in films covering this territory, but rarely is the effect so cathartic. Occasionally, however, the camera pulls back to view Léo as an uninvested passerby might — his animal magnetism suddenly rendered small and forlorn.
Maritaud’s extraordinary performance similarly plays both sides of that coin. “Brave” is an overused adjective for such assignments, but the actor, whom viewers may recognize from his debut on the sidelines of Robin Campillo’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” last year, throws himself into Léo’s mental and bodily self-punishment with such unguarded conviction that one’s concern for character and actor become oddly entwined. “Sauvage” certainly leaves you wondering what’s next for both: The future may be unambiguously bright for Maritaud, though if Léo ends up bound for the wild, it’s hard to say if that’s a relief or a defeat.