“Sauvage/Wild,” a fierce and compassionate first feature from the French writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet, begins with what appears to be a routine physical examination. A handsome 22-year-old named Léo (Félix Maritaud), complaining of coughing fits and stomach pains, strips off his shirt and allows the doctor to inspect the bruises on his torso. Before long, the doctor is inspecting more than that: Léo is a sex worker, and his latest client is a guy with a medical role-play fetish. The doctor isn’t real, though the bruises very much are.
At once playfully withholding and matter-of-fact explicit, the scene makes a fitting opener for a movie whose frank depictions of male sexuality conceal their own subtler level of scrutiny. You could describe “Sauvage/Wild,” set in Strasbourg, as an intimate and unflinching portrait of a gay prostitute and some of the harsh realities of his line of work: lousy pay, violent johns, days spent tediously waiting for work and nights spent sleeping on sidewalks. You might also see it as the story of a man treating his job as a conduit for love, seeking a spark or a connection that might lead to something more.
That might suggest a naively romanticized view of sex work, the flip side of the moralistic finger-wagging that too often accompanies movies on the subject. But Vidal-Naquet never prettifies or sentimentalizes what he shows us; he simply refuses to draw easy boundaries between love and lust, the emotional and the transactional. We learn little about Léo’s background or the circumstances that led him to his present state, but he clearly isn’t in it for the money. He likes what he does, and he seldom rules out the possibility of finding meaning, even tenderness, in each anonymous encounter.
In this he differs from the more pragmatic Ahd (Éric Bernard), who makes it clear that he’s strictly gay-for-pay, though he eventually lands a sugar daddy and encourages Léo to do the same. But Léo has already fallen hopelessly in love with Ahd, a desire that this inarticulate young man can express only in a language of clumsy embraces and flailing fisticuffs.
Maritaud, who had supporting roles in “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” and “Knife + Heart,” acts with an explosive physicality, and he presents his body to the camera with zero inhibition or self-consciousness. But the movie keeps drawing your gaze to his eyes, and to the range of emotions that sometimes peek out from behind his chiseled glare. Léo can be a passive participant, as when he’s being degraded by a pair of thugs or joining forces with another hustler (Nicolas Dibla) to dupe and rob their latest john. But he can also be a generous and attentive companion, as when he bonds with an older man in a touching assertion of mutual need.
Vidal-Naquet has cited Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond” (1985) as an inspiration in interviews, and the similarities are apparent not only in this movie’s jagged realism but also in its existential, moment-by-moment approach. As with Varda’s protagonist, a young woman in a defiant state of drift, we learn little about Léo’s background or how he ended up in his present state. One of the movie’s points it that he doesn’t really owe us an explanation.
The harshness of his circumstances speaks more than sufficiently for itself. We are reminded continually of Léo’s poverty and hunger, his crack addiction and his waning health; we also see the day-to-day violence that can erupt, whether out in the open or behind closed doors. But the movie lets the moments of bliss and contentment speak too, from the electrifying release of a strobe-lit dance floor to the unforced camaraderie he feels with his fellow prostitutes. Léo accepts all of it without complaint and even a measure of equanimity, and at no point does he seem willing to consider a different way of life.
Midway through the film, he meets with another doctor, a real one this time (played by Marie Seux), who encourages him to get off drugs and take better care of himself. As she examines him, Léo responds instinctively to her touch, pulling her into a hug that she gently returns. It’s one of the few instances of physical interaction in “Sauvage/Wild” that isn’t followed by an exchange of money or a punch in the face, and it’s both heartening and heartbreaking to watch. Vidal-Naquet’s film knows that every wound and balm to the flesh is also one to the spirit.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles