The trope of the “hooker with a heart of gold” has become such a mainstay in cinema that ardent cinephiles and casual movie fans alike can easily recognize its cliches. When it comes to such matters of love and sex, however, you can always count on the French to bring a fresh and often subversive perspective. Such is the case in Camille Vidal-Naquet’sSauvage“, which turns this trope on its head with a surprisingly tender-hearted drama about a gay male prostitute.

“Sauvage” is the story of Leo, a 22-year old living on the fringes of Parisian society. For the better part of his life, he has relied on prostitution to survive. Physically attractive and kind, he gets frequent work as one of the most popular among his circle of male prostitutes. But neither the money nor the drugs he uses to cope are able to satisfy his ultimate desire – to be loved. His object of affection is a friend and fellow sex worker named Ahd, who professes to only be “gay for pay”. Yet Leo is determined to win him over, despite Ahd’s refusal to commit. As he makes his way through this unforgiving life, his body and heartaches. Leo wants life, love, and happiness, but he struggles to find them and time may be running out.

Immersing viewers into Leo’s world, Camille Vidal-Naquet holds nothing back in this unfiltered depiction of the life of a gay male prostitute. Indeed, there’s an underlying sense of danger evoked through the film’s heavy tone and the unpredictability of each encounter. Trading the glamor of a “Pretty Woman” fantasy for stark realism, the film is at once erotic and mechanistic with its numerous explicit sex scenes.

From a storytelling perspective, the film initially feels aimless in its voyeurism, but it gradually reveals deeper layers through Félix Maritaud’s touching performance. As Leo, he carries the film on his slender shoulders, conveying the character’s physical and emotional pain through an open-hearted, vulnerable portrayal. Even as his character repeatedly engages in self-destructive behavior, there’s a kindness and sadness in his eyes that captivates the audience and endears us to him.

In English, the film’s title translates to “Wild”. And indeed, “Sauvage” goes to great lengths to show how the life of as a street hustler can ravage the body. But the film’s real triumph is the way the script and its central performance expresses unrequited love as a more deeply felt pain. As much as the character’s sexuality and livelihood subvert convention, “Sauvage” is classically romantic as it conveys relatable truths about heartbreak and the crazy things we do for love.

“Sauvage” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)

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