France’s Sauvage/Wild, which premiered last year at Cannes and is currently playing in select U.S. theaters, presents a challenge for its audience: Can you accept, even care about, a drug-using sex worker who has no particular interest in changing his lifestyle or job, and actually seems to enjoy aspects of it? Those who take the plunge will be rewarded by a vivid, multivalent depiction of sex work specifically (and the disconnectedness of hook-up culture generally) that derives power from its matter-of-factness. Homeless protagonist Léo (Félix Maritaud) turns tricks, sleeps in the woods, smokes crack, drinks from the gutter, and cuddles with fellow sex worker Ahd (Eric Bernard), who identifies as straight, all the while maintaining a sphinx-like affect. His addiction intensifies, but Sauvage is not a spiral, and it’s driven by staying true to Léo’s determination to choose his own life path, not its creator’s need to moralize.
Writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet said he intentionally set out to create a “nonjudgmental” depiction of a protagonist that even he finds mysterious. “I cannot say I have him figured out totally,” he told Jezebel earlier this week at Film Forum, the theater where his movie is playing in New York. After writing his first draft, Vidal-Naquet spent time in Bois de Boulogne, a park partially located in western Paris. It’s a place known for sex work—Vidal-Naquet compared it to a supermarket, with aisles of different genders and identities, from which clients can choose. The writer-director ended up making weekly visits for the grounds for about three years. “I started bonding with them,” he said. “I felt so small in comparison.”
More than a sociological narrative about sex work, Vidal-Naquet sought to explore certain themes: the fragility of masculinity, immigration, the margins of sexuality. Despite Sauvage solely depicting man-on-man sex, often in vivid detail and with non-professional actors, Vidal-Naquet told Jezebel he doesn’t view it as an LGBTQ movie. An edited and condensed transcript of our discussion is below.
JEZEBEL: How were you able to enter the world of sex workers in France in the first place?
CAMILLE VIDAL-NAQUET: I started to write the first draft of the script, but I didn’t know what the reality of it looked like. That’s the way I write—it’s better to not know the reality because you can imagine what you want. And then when it was over, I said, “Now I’m going to adapt it to reality.” There’s a charity in France that works with homeless people. I went and met them and I said, “I have questions about my script.” They told me, “If you want real answers you have to talk to the workers.”
I went there in a little van. You open the door and you just have coffee and everybody can come and enter and just talk. I thought I would be there for one or two nights, but I ended up staying there. I started bonding with them. I felt so small in comparison. That feeling you have when you live in comfort. You complain everyday but you see how strong some people can be. I stayed a few years and then the producer said, “I’m afraid you’re never going to shoot it.” I thought everything those guys had been giving me, the trust they had been giving me, it had to be in the film.
I’m not a sociologist, I’m not an expert, but I have the feeling that when you sell your body, you have this tendency of forgetting very quickly you are someone. You’re just something that you sell. I think it’s a mechanism of protection to say, “It’s not really me, it’s just a body, just something that’s a product that I sell.” The danger of this is you start saying you’re not very important. When you say to [one of these sex workers], “Hi, how are you?” it’s huge. It means you’re taking an interest in someone and they’re worth it, especially if you come the week after. Mostly, we talked about anything but prostitution. “How are you?” “What’s going on?” “Did you see the soccer game?” Things like that. Normal things that we do. In the beginning, I was more like a counselor, asking how was prostitution, but that wasn’t my job and I didn’t have the ability to do this. So I was just sharing a moment.
How did spending time with them change your conception of sex work?
When I wrote it, I thought, “Oh it’s going a bit far,” but when I discovered the reality, reality was so violent and harder than I thought. Sauvage/Wild can be tough, but it’s not as hard as the reality. I’m talking especially about the violence that happens between the boys. It’s a world where if you fight, there’s no police there to help you. Nobody’s there to help. You just fight, and the strongest wins. I tried to change it and become a bit closer to the street life. On the other hand, I was extremely surprised to discover a lot of joy in a lot of these boys. I didn’t expect that. It’s so tough. But there is joy, there is hope and tenderness—between the boys, and between the boys and us.
Did you find people like your protagonist Leo that enjoy the work, or some aspects of it?
It’s exactly like if you ask someone if they enjoy their work. They could say, “I’m a bit bored with it,” or, “It’s what I do.” That I think was more surprising—it’s just a job. They do it. The character I think is a bit different from that. I don’t know if Leo’s enjoying it, but he is there, it’s his job, and the strongest part of the character, I hope, is that he’s able to find tenderness and beauty in the most unexpected places.
There’s something mysterious in the character. I cannot say I have him figured out totally. I don’t know sometimes why he’s acting this way. That’s why it was so interesting to write him. You write with impulses. “I think he should do that,” but I cannot tell you why. He’s beyond my control.
Did you have a bigger-picture agenda in mind in terms of representation? Did you think about how sex work has been depicted in other movies, and how you wanted to do it differently?
Yes and no. It was instinctive. I wanted something nonjudgmental—in both ways. When you say “nonjudgmental,” people think, “Oh yeah, you’re not against it.” I’m not against it, I’m not for it. I’m not saying, “Oh poor things, they do this,” but I’m not saying, “Oh great, they do this!” I’m just here to try to invite the audience to share a life with someone you would never share otherwise. But I was very, very influenced by an American film called Flesh by Paul Morrissey from 1968. It’s a film where you follow a day in the life of Joe Dallesandro, who’s a father, he has a wife and kid, and he’s bringing in money from prostitution. In that film, there’s no judgment whatsoever. A lot of people thought the film was boring when it was out, and it is a bit boring, but the courage of this film was to depict the boredom you can feel when you wait for the customers. It’s boring.
I’m not a social worker. There are people who are professional and can talk much better about it. A lot of people ask me what my position is about prostitution. I don’t even know what that means. It’s like, “What is your position on bakers?” It doesn’t make sense. After three years I spent there, I have more questions than before. All I can tell you is that human nature can reach a level of complexity that’s amazing. That’s all I know.
Are you comfortable discussing your own sexuality?
It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with my sexuality, I think it’s not really relevant. The film has to be accurate, so when you talk about a reality like prostitution, it’s not a matter of gay or not. I don’t consider the film to be a LGBT film. Of course, you can imagine the movie has been doing I don’t know how many LGBT festivals around the world—I’ve gotten tons of gay press. When people say it’s an LGBT movie, I’m more than happy to hear it. But when I’m asked the question, I say that I think it’s not a movie about sexual orientation. What I witnessed while I was there was that most of the boys that were hustling were straight. They were showing me pictures of a wife and kids. And there were also straight clients because they had a wife and kids. Who goes in the woods with all the apps today? You go in the woods because you don’t want to leave traces on the internet. So you are witnessing two straight guys having sex. Does that make them gay? That was my question. No, they are straight actually. They’re both straight, but they’re having sex. I know it’s difficult for us to understand it, but to me, there’s a difference between gay sex and two straight men having sex. It’s not the same. In one case, there’s gay love, and in the other it’s just two human beings in need of something. I’m more drawn to that category cinematographically speaking. I think it’s richer.
I think “straight” is such a narrow definition though. I buy what you say about them not being functionally gay, that there’s more gray area there, but straight is a different story. I would say you have elements of queerness in your life if you’re having sex regularly with a member of the same gender, whether you’re doing it for money or not.
But, is it relevant to categorize? You’re right, these men, they’re straight, but there’s more to it. It doesn’t have to be gay. It’s not relevant to me. It’s more free than that.
The reason that I asked you about your sexuality is because some people reflect their lives and values in their art to the extent that it is relevant.
I’m not uncomfortable at all, I never talk about personal life. Not just sexuality.
I have always had the feeling, and maybe I’m wrong, that in America, the conception of men is a bit more liberated than in France. In France, you can represent two women having tenderness between them. Man and woman, no problem. But two men? Why would this be a problem? I don’t understand this. There is tenderness between men even if they’re not gay.
I think men feel degraded if they don’t fit what we put on the category of virility, which is ridiculous. You can be extremely virile, manly, and be extremely soft and tender with another man. When we shot this film, you could not believe how many times people told me, “Yeah, it’s a bit of a problem if you shoot your film here.” I said, “But you said yes. We told you it was a movie about prostitution.” They’d say, “Yes, but we thought it was a movie about the prostitution of women.” I’d say, “What’s the difference.” They’d say, “Women, you know…” They think, “Women do that. Men? Come on.” You see, this is not really a question about being gay; it’s a question about what it is to be a man today.
The counterargument I’d make regarding depicting tenderness between men is that some of the most notable, explicit, and specific movies about gay men in recent years—BPM, Stranger by the Lake, Sorry, Angel—have been French. I can’t quantify French versus American attitudes, but I do think that we have these issues as well. Do you think of this film as a tragedy?
No. For it to be tragic, it would have to have a closed ending. That’s the prime element of tragedy—you know the ending before it starts. You know it’s going to go bad. To me, this is a flat line and you follow someone.
I think the most important thing I could say in this film is that this man is selling everything, but one thing: his ability to make a choice. This thing is not for sale. In the movie, nobody ever makes choices for him. Ever. No one gives him orders ever. I don’t know if [his final choice] is good or bad—all I know is that it’s his. That’s the most important thing.
Did any of the guys that you talked to see the movie?
No. We sent invitations to the association saying everything was available for them if they wanted to host a screening. I would give them the DVD or whatever they wanted. We were at their disposal if they wanted. But I let them handle it, out of respect, basically.
Was any of the sex real? Some of the blowjobs appeared to be actually taking place.
Do I have to answer? Let’s say… it’s cinema.
I told to everyone: never try to be sexy or erotic. It’s not pornography. You’re not here to expose your bits. It’s work. They’re workers. That was very important. I was shooting with beautiful boys. It was difficult. I didn’t want to make them ugly and I didn’t want to accentuate their beauty, the beauty of their bodies, which is usually what you see in gay films. It’s easy, you get someone muscular, you put light on the side, and it outlines everything and, “Oooh, it’s beautiful.” We were trying to avoid this. I was very, very pleased with the work of Jacques Girault, the DP. He understood it. [The goal] was not to make them look ugly, like, “Put a white, ugly light on them.” It was much more complicated. They’re not beautiful, they’re not ugly, they’re not sexy, they’re just here. They’re just bodies at work.