Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Showing a keen understanding of the nature of sex work and of life on the streets, Vidal-Naquet carries us through several days in Léo's life in a observational, non-judgemental way." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Critics' Week

The French word sauvage doesn't translate as neatly into English as many people seem to think it does. There is indeed a brutal side to Camille Vidal-Naquet's directorial début but that's inevitable in any honest portrait of life on the streets. What is more notable about his central character - who is played by Félix Maritaud and referred to in press notes as Léo, though he is never named onscreen and tells a client "you can call me what you want" - is the degree to which he lives like a wild animal on the fringes of the civilised world. He washes only once, cleansing his mouth with water from a drain. We get the impression that he can't read. He lives day to day, getting cash in hand for sexual services, immediately spending it on food or drugs, resorting to petty crime when it runs short. He sleeps when he gets the chance, by night or by day, wherever he can find a bit of shelter. He's 22 but this lifestyle is nevertheless taking a serious toll on his body. The thing is, he doesn't seem to know any other way to live.

Léo is the kind of person whose life most of us only ever see in glimpses. Even those who know him don't expect to keep track of him; everybody in his milieu drifts around. When we first meet him he's undergoing a medical examination that later turns out to be sexual role play, forcing us to wonder, in between, if he's being abused, and in some ways that question lingers. He's an open, talkative person, all too ready to give himself away emotionally as he sells his physical services, despite the warnings of fellow hustlers; yet he notably avoids sharing any details about his past. What stands out most about him is his aching loneliness, his longing for physical contact with somebody - anybody - who cares about him. There is another young man in his orbit, differently messed up, who might help with that, but Léo can't see it. He's hopelessly in love with his friend Ahd (Éric Bernard) who claims to be only gay for pay and is unable to give him what he needs.

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Showing a keen understanding of the nature of sex work and of life on the streets, Vidal-Naquet carries us through several days in Léo's life in a observational, non-judgemental way. There's a fair bit of sexual activity, as one would expect, but it's presented as work - the clients are rarely good looking and there's little in the way of real passion. There is sometimes sympathy but for someone as fragile as Léo, that has its own dangers. Only occasionally do we see him treated in an overtly abusive manner; more problematic for him is the awareness that most of his clients have no personal interest in him at all.

At times the camera draws back, letting us see events only from a distance where we cannot quite make out what's being said; at others it plunges forward, as when the hustlers have a kickabout in the park and we move as if part of the game, following not faces but feet and knees and the ball. This style keeps us very much in balance with the character of Léo's world, as if we too were coming and going, unwilling or unable to help.

Maritaud embodies his character with an intensity of the sort that older, more experienced actors are often wary of, taking his own emotional risks in order to portray someone who has no defences at all. It's a performance that deserves to win him serious notice and it has the effect of making Léo interesting and appealing even to people who are clearly put off by other aspects of the film. It's true that there's not much plot, but that's really the point. What we get instead is a melancholy ambience that acknowledges, as few films do, what it's really like to be an outsider.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2019
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A young male sex worker searches for love and companionship.
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Director: Camille Vidal-Naquet

Writer: Camille Vidal-Naquet

Starring: Félix Maritaud, Eric Bernard, Nicolas Dibla, Philippe Ohrel, Pavle Dragas, Mehdi Boudina

Year: 2017

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

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