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“He Stays the Strongest Because He Has This Unquenchable Love in His Heart”: Writer/Director Camille Vidal-Naquete and Actor Félix Maritaud on Sauvage/Wild

Félix Maritaud in Sauvage/Wild

Leo (Félix Maritaud) never counts his money after he’s with a client. The gay sex worker at the center of Camille Vidal-Naquet’s film Sauvage/Wild is, honestly, happy to be there. Drifting from client to client and from place to place, the homeless hustler has one constant that is quickly disappearing: his unrequited feelings for fellow hustler (though “gay 4 pay”), Ahd (Éric Bernard). Leo’s intense yearning for human connection and affection, mixed with his somewhat paradoxical disinclination to be “kept” in a (facile) domestic situation, and ailing body but unrelenting spirit, are reminiscent of Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Maritaud’s face is capable of expressing the very tenderness that the world around Leo refuses to reciprocate, while Vidal-Naquet’s camera plunges into the depths of a world where the search for love, untamed and boundaryless, is what keeps some people alive. I spoke with director Vidal-Naquet and star Maritaud about the development of the character, dancing to death in clubs, sex work on screen and embodying vulnerability.

Filmmaker: Towards the end of the film, the hustler that Leo falls in love with tells him that he’s made to be loved, [which] suggests this transactional nature of love and sex. How did you go about navigating that power dynamic?

Maritaud: Wow! That is a very wide question. The way you present it is not the way I feel it. He says it as a way to say, “Your only possibilities in the world are about love and its vibrations.” He speaks for him and he wants to take care of him, and by saying this he encourages him to stay safe with somebody that is going to love him. The truth is that he’s made for love vibration.

Filmmaker: Regarding Leo as a sex worker, he seems to be very genuine and authentic when he’s with clients, as opposed to Ahd, who is playing a role. He’s effectively “gay-4-pay.”

Vidal-Naquet: The other workers, they just need the money, it’s a job. We have this character who is making that confusion [between] the work and the desperate need of human contact, and he can find it through prostitution. I’ve met some guys who were hustling and they told me [that]. I found that very interesting, that sometimes the fact that they were being paid by someone, to them, was proof that you’re worth being loved. It wasn’t just money to buy things. In the film, we have a character who was more interested by the human dimension. He can see beauty where [there isn’t any]. It gives strength to the character. When the film starts, you would think that he would be the weakest—he has no strength, he doesn’t know how to fight in the street, he doesn’t know how to survive, he’s abused by people. But in the end, he is the only one still standing up, because his ability to love gives him that power of being quite invincible. He stays the strongest because he has this unquenchable love in his heart.

Filmmaker: Did the character of Leo change at all from the first draft to when you were doing your research, interviewing other hustlers and sex workers, to when Félix was cast? Did Félix help develop the character at all?

Maritaud: It didn’t feel like the body of the character [was] like my body, it was more a really small person, [which] I am not.

Vidal-Naquet: The script moved a lot but the character never changed. When you think about it, he looks fragile, but he’s fearless, he’s not afraid of anything. I imagined he was a very skinny, fragile guy with a damaged body. And when I met Félix, he was different from what I thought, but it was more interesting that way. You have a solid body, but the fragility is in the acting. It’s a bit unexpected. That’s what one of the things that Félix brought.

Filmmaker: Speaking of fear, what scares you as an actor, Félix, particularly in this film, and then what scares you, Camille, as a filmmaker?

Maritaud: What scares me is judgment on characters. I’m scared to begin to develop the kind of idea of acting where I use my own experience of life to talk about somebody else. That’s what scares me the most. I try to stay humble and available to characters without choosing for them.

Vidal-Naquet: I always have this fear of having no control over situations, especially on sets when you make a film. This experience was so strong for me [because] I was looking for the opposite, I was looking for this total freedom where everything and anything can go. In the film it’s very, very controlled, but it gives the impression that it’s very free. I think when you’re a filmmaker—I guess it’s the same for others—you want everything to be completely controlled.

Maritaud: Yeah, because you spend a lot of time working on this script, working on something where you have all the control, and then by shooting it, you have to find back some kind of innocence. But I really work out of control.

Vidal-Naquet: Félix has this energy, but is able to give the text you’ve written exactly—the intonation you want, everything. Actors, they think it’s going to be totally freestyle, [that] they can change everything. Félix has this thing where he can combine both of these things: being able to have this freedom, this energy that you have to tame a bit for the film, but also to be very precise and very professional on the job and keeping this control, trying to be as precise as he can about the director’s intentions.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the conception of those club scenes and the music that you use, and the strobe lights?

Vidal-Naquet: It’s very rare that somebody talks to me about this, I’m really happy to have this question. In one of my short movies, Backstage, we shot in a nightclub, I told the DP that I just wanted a strobe light, nothing else. Usually DPs say no. It’s true that if you use just a strobe light, it means that you can have a 30 or 45 second scene, but not more, because you cannot stand much more, you can’t see anything. But I think it’s the closest there is to the nightclubs I’ve been [to]. I’m always disappointed in movies, because the club scenes never look like real club scenes. It’s the strobe light decomposing the image [that is] making you feel you are in a movie.

One of the scenes, the first one, is shot with an actual nightclub strobe light. The second one, which is much more vivid, is a cinema light that we brought—it’s brighter and much more intense. What I found interesting in this scene is that you show the body of the main character, and he’s extremely powerful. He’s sweating, dancing, full of energy, indestructible. To me, that was extremely important. You may think that this guy would want to rest after after everything he’s going through, but he’s dancing, sweating and keeping on dancing.

Filmmaker: This film is also very much about bodies and doctors. The presence of a doctor punctuates every third of the film. The doctor in the beginnin is a client, the doctor in the middle is actually caring for Leo, and then the doctor at the end has Claude’s well-being in mind.

Vidal-Naquet: I think the doctor is an eternal movie character—a character you identify immediately in a movie,  the one with authority and knowledge. You can put someone in a doctor’s office and have them wear a white blouse—you know he’s a doctor, and you will never doubt it as an audience member, just because of the uniform.

Doctors have access to the bodies of these guys, and that’s what I thought was interesting. There’s two different kinds of doctors: there’s the moralistic doctor, like the last one, who to me is an abusive doctor. He’s discussing the health of his patient with somebody else, which is totally unethical. They’re taking control biologically of the body of someone, which when you think about it is extremely violent, because you’re supposed to have total confidence with your doctor. And the central doctor is a female because she’s inspired by my doctor, who has been following me for 30 years. And I know her, she’s very much like this character. She cares about the human. She has always had this intention to understand what was happening to me—”What’s going on in your life?”—never judging. And always, like, so soft. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to hug her in my arms but never dared, because she’s my real doctor. Wo what we did is Félix went to see her. We made a fake consultation with my real doctor.

Maritaud: That was quite strange to her. I was playing the character, with my body as it is. It was quite amazing: the line between fiction and reality is [crossed] over, only emotions and humanity exist. What is funny is that the female doctor was the first day of shooting. So we began with the scene, where the character was emerging from all the emotion he had. The last doctor, shooting at the end of the movie, I was really in character and arguing with Camille that day.  

Vidal-Naquet: It was a bit disorientating that day. We were worried with that doctor: we didn’t know the actor, the only person we never rehearsed with. But that gives a very interesting feeling. We didn’t know that guy, we didn’t trust him. But we had to control that new character, which was Leo 2.0.

Filmmaker: Did you refer to any other depictions of sex work on film before writing this, or did that come after, or was that at all part of the process?

Vidal-Naquet: I saw tons of movies about male hustling in general. But I would say I was really inspired by an American film called Flesh by Paul Morrissey that I saw long ago, from 1968, which is the day of a sex worker played by Joe Dallesandro. He’s a father and he’s just looking for a job. I was very young when I saw it. I didn’t understand it when I saw it, I didn’t know what’s going on. But I found the movie very beautiful; the colors, the texture is beautiful. It was a character study, a film with no moral judgment, just seeing a father hustling in the street and the clients coming back at the end of the day. There’s another movie I really like that I never talk about, Greek Pete.

Filmmaker: The Andrew Haigh film! Amazing film.

Vidal-Naquet: It’s a very good film. It’s a documentary, not a fiction. There’s another very good movie that I saw a lot. It’s called Men For Sale by Rodrigue Jean, which is portraits of 10 guys husting in Montreal. You see them for a year and all the transformations, and it’s just portraits of guys talking. 

Filmmaker: You referenced Greek Pete, and those hustlers use the internet. But this film does not feature any kind of internet platform or Grindr or anything like that for the hustlers to find their clients.

Vidal-Naquet: It’s just because usually homeless people don’t have smartphones. Smartphones are for people who are not living in the streets. When you have the internet, it means you have a certain level of money, of living. I know, because the person told me, that a lot of married men would prefer to go in the street because it leaves no trace—with the internet, there can still be a trace. So you just go directly with your car. Also, some clients just like to go in the streets to find someone. That’s how they take their pleasure, it’s just as simple as that.

Filmmaker: Was there a scene in particular that was especially difficult but ended up coming out better than you expected?

Maritaud: The scene where Ahd said to Leo “You are made to be loved” is a one-shot.

Vidal-Naquet: This scene where the two characters say goodbye to each other… Before that scene, we had to shoot the scene where he hits that older man. We thought “This is going to be an hour, it’s easy to do, and then the goodbye is going to be seven hours of work.” But what happened is that we spent, like, seven hours on the first scene because [it] was impossible to do. In the end, we just had one or two shots to make the most difficult scene. It’s almost one shot. It was two shots.

Filmmaker: Did your perspectives about sex or vulnerability or love change after making this film?

Maritaud: I have been having an experience through this character that has been giving me so much strength, because what makes him strong is what makes me weak. I wish I was like him, actually, because he’s [got] the most shining vibration I’ve met in my life. [It]his is so untamed and makes me feel way more flexible and open. This character gave me a lot, way more than I gave to him.

Vidal-Naquet: I don’t know if it changed my conception of life, of love and sex, but it’s true that obviously my life changed. When you make a film like this, you have to learn to be trustful and it’s very difficult because you doubt everything and don’t trust anything. Félix is very good like like this because he’s very confident in life, which is the opposite of me. I always think things are going to go bad, and he thinks it’s going to go well, and it does.

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