Leo (Félix Maritaud) is a twenty-two-year-old prostitute on the streets of Strasbourg, homeless and forced to live in a squat, when he has anywhere to live at all. His duties take in simple oral sex in the bushes to role playing with clients, such as the man who wants him to pretend to be a patient and he a doctor who is seducing him during an examination. But life on those streets is taking its toll, and Leo is beginning to suffer physically, with a nasty, persistent cough nagging at him and making him consider seeing a real doctor. His aimless life is more important than his health, and as he continues his damaging lifestyle he has no care for his own safety, just care for a fellow hustler...
Sauvage was the feature debut for director Camille Vidal-Naquet after a couple of short works, and bagged him a Cesar in the process. As he was an ex-film lecturer, you would have expected him to at least know his way around a story and its themes, though curiously the themes here were somewhat buried beneath apparently random incident as his hero pinballed from one encounter to the next, never holding onto anyone, not even the prostitute he is in love with, Ahd (Eric Bernard). Not that he is able to admit to this man that he has such affection for him, both because that's not what men do according to the unwritten rules of society, and because he has no idea of how to express himself.
Leo is a blank, as the opening scene of roleplaying highlights, someone for his clients to project their fantasies on, either as a one night (or five minute) stand they can make come to prove they can still have that kind of sexual power, or more seriously, as a potential life partner who they can use for sex as often as they want as long as they play the sugar daddy. Therefore any thought of Leo's feelings, and indeed any agency he has whatsoever, are not on the table: he might as well be a puppet for all the pulling of his strings that goes on, so it is little wonder that Ahd has no interest in a relationship with this barely formed personality when he can settle down with an older gentleman instead.
This breaks Leo's heart, or you have to assume it does as he becomes reckless to compensate for his thwarted romantic emotions, but with Maritaud's reserved performance, combined with a matter of fact presentation and script that concentrates on one damn thing after another rather than a solidly structured plot, it was often difficult to tell what was going on in Leo's head. It might be no more than the question, "Where is my next hit of the crack pipe coming from?", as time and again he seeks oblivion in hard drugs, reluctant to face up to his problems and those users around him who toy with him for their own satisfaction take full advantage of his lack of direction. By all rights this should have made him frustrating to watch as a protagonist as he instigates almost nothing throughout the hour and a half running time.
Yet every so often, a hint of personality is allowed to peep out, and perhaps the key scene is not with any of his sexual partners or Ahd, but with a doctor when he eventually decides to do something about that cough, since it is handicapping him when he takes choking fits. She examines him, asks him about his background and gets no reply - we learn nothing about Leo aside from what happens in the moment - but as she moves in close he embraces her as if she were his absent mother offering him the comfort you imagine he would never have received from his actual mother. It's disarming, and brings you up short, for here was an ostensibly nihilistic young man whose only real love drives him to bad choices (crime with another prostitute, going with the client everyone knows to avoid), yet here he was displaying a tenderness that he is not being paid for, therefore it is wholly genuine. Some may find Leo offputting, especially in light of what happens at the end, but his personality is surprisingly vivid for a man who gives so little away. Music by Romain Trouillet.
[Those special features on Peccadillo's Blu-ray are as follows:
DELETED SCENES with Director Camille Vidal-Naquet & Editor Elif Uluengin
ANATOMY OF A SCENE with Jean-Marc Lalanne
SCREEN TESTS with Director Camille Vidal-Naquet and Director of Photography Jacques Girault
WRITING SAUVAGE with Director Camille Vidal-Naquet
PLAYING LEO with actor Félix Maritaud.]