@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Sun 3 Mar 2019

Félix Maritaud ( BPM (Beats Per Minute)) gives an extraordinary performance as a young and guileless hustler drifting through the streets, clubs, and beds of Strasbourg in Camille Vidal-Naquet’s frank and intimate debut.  Maritaud’s Leo walks with a swagger, but there’s also an aching longing for affection and tenderness.  This manifests in his willingness to kiss his clients on the mouth, an act that his fellow rent boys won’t contemplate.

This capacity for human connection is matched and possibly surpassed only by his tendency towards self-annihilation.  An unrequited passion for the handsome but pragmatic Ahd (Eric Bernard) is a central catalyst for a seemingly inevitable spiral of decay and doom, fuelled by drugs, failing health and increasingly risky sexual encounters.  It all hints at past traumas and abuses that are never revealed, leaving Leo as something of a charismatic mystery.  It’s easy to admire the fearlessness of the performance, but too often the motives for Leo’s behaviour are frustratingly obtuse.

The sex scenes are frequent, explicit, and often bruising.  Vidal-Naquet also peppers Leo’s encounters with moments of humour, even in scenes that are otherwise brutal or humiliating.  An opening scene in which Leo appears to be having his various injuries inspected by a doctor is flipped playfully on its head, and the unveiling of a butt plug the size of Paul McCarthy’s Christmas Tree provokes incredulous laughter in the viewer which turns to horror when it’s put to sadistic use.

It’s not long before Sauvage becomes almost painful to watch in places as Leo begins to physically and mentally disintegrate before our eyes.  This is both to the film’s  credit and detriment.  Vidal-Naquet spent three years interviewing male prostitutes about their experiences in preparation, and there is the grimy ring of truth about both the situations of the hustlers and some of their punters: old, disabled and lonely.  Such is the underlying current of sadness that a spontaneous hug between Leo and a doctor during a check up has incredible emotional power.  Subtle writing, beautifully played.  A great moment of cinema as a pure empathy machine.

Sauvage ultimately takes such pains in depicting the crushing boredom and grinding rhythms of Leo’s existence that it rather paints itself into a corner.  The depiction is pitched somewhere between modern takes on the neo-realist style of enduring classics like Bicycle Thieves and picaresque Dickensian waifs like Oliver Twist or Nicholas NicklebyJacques Girault‘s roving, inquisitive camera contributes to the documentary feel, loving its subject in the way Leo never achieves from his encounters.  Maritaud’s is so successful in his performance and in establishing the authenticity of his character that when there is the chance of salvation for Leo it risks coming across as contrived, and a final push for profundity and allegory fails to land because it’s the previous focus on mundanity that has proved so compelling.

By its very design, Sauvage is alternately engaging and alienating.  It’s bracingly real and raw, to the point you can almost smell poor Leo.  It certainly has its flaws as a narrative, but what an asset is Félix Maritaud.