Sauvage (2018), directed by Camille Vidal-Naquet

I thought about walking out during the scene.  I didn’t watch but even the sounds were too much, like the gasps and moans of a small animal being abused and unable to escape. The negotiation of leaving and then guessing the right time to re-enter would be difficult so instead I cupped my hand over my eyes, sunk into the cinema seat and looked at the wall to the side of the screen. I tried not to hear, just enough to gage when it had finished and I could look again, straighten my back and stop the squirming of my body.

As soon as the long scene began it was troublesome. Two young men sit arrogantly, legs spread on their sofa as they tell (never ask) central character Leo (Félix Maritaud) to strip and turn around. “He’s filthy” they complain, but never offer a shower. The body is reduced to an object brutally, the men’s tone is sociopathic in its casual cruelness. The point at which the scene became unbearable was when the two men unveil the butt plug. It is brought out in a cloth, made quasi-mystical by the ceremonial unwrapping. After the scene finishes there is no relief, the pain continuing even after the abuse, even after they stop trying to push objects into Leo’s body, by their refusal to pay the previously negotiated amount.

Sauvage is filled with scenes of such pain, but also tenderness, intimacy, and wit. It treats its central subject as complexly written into his situation, showing brutality of actions and illness without pity as well as moments of poetic framing of the face and body without fetishization of the grim life of a young hustler. Along with his friend, fellow hustler and (kind of?) lover Ahd (Eric Bernard), Leo and the other guys stand on the grass next to a road, arms bare in what must be heat, clothes unwashed, hair floppy, bodies seducing drivers to pick them up.

Sometimes they party. Life seems a constant tumble from one place to the next with no need for the cycle to end. A poignant scene with a doctor (Marie Seux) allows for the sense of such a life to be communicated. When the doctor asks Leo if he will stop smoking crack, he plainly asks “Why would I?” And like the doctor, one can only agree with the need for such a question. Why indeed? Near the end, when Leo does find some refuge from an impoverished life, the film does not affectively register this shift as joyful or positive. And rightly so. Even though cleaned up, Leo is still woven into a relationship that exchanges intimacy for money. Throughout the film we witness only a couple instances where Leo breaks from such an exchange: a few times with Ahd and then later when he has a small, romantic adventure with another hustler.

The strobing dance scene of the romantic episode hints to similar club scenes from 120 BPM (2017) or a Gaspar Noe aesthetic where bodies disappear and reappear in snaps of light, lending a sinister air to the environment through its fragmentation as we all black-in and out together with the intoxicating thump of light and sound alike. In the more quotidian scenes I am reminded of Andy Warhol’s/Paul Morrisey’s Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970), where Joe Dallessandro waits on sidewalks or wonders aimlessly. In Flesh, Trash and Sauvage, the camera renders the body beautiful through the time of its look, allowing us to see the boys faces, the chisel of a jaw or sweet slope of a nose, the glimmering pain and poetics of a life of toughness that is meaningful in its moral liminality.

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