What would Democratic-party presidential aspirant Peter Buttigieg make of Sauvage/Wild, the new French film about a gay sex hustler who refuses all the societal norms? Leo (played by Félix Maritaud) isn’t running for public office; he’s one of the young men who pick up customers in the Bois de Boulogne. It’s not to make money but to live freely. Without a job, a spouse, or political affiliation — he is “without roof or law,” to repeat the title of Agnès Varda’s 1985 film Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond), which chronicled the habits of a modern homeless wanderer.
Buttigieg’s personal sexual declaration is not our concern, but his progressive political stance meets a provocative challenge through director-writer Camille Vidal-Naquet’s raw, unflinching narrative in Sauvage/Wild.
The Leo characterization is so politically incorrect in his disregard of money, property, hygiene, and the shameless company he keeps that he defies the glib virtues ascribed to a candidate such as Buttigieg and by which the mainstream media always give the edge to such a figure. During a free clinic’s medical check-up, a matriarchal doctor advises Leo to give up crack cocaine; he looks at her perplexed, not understanding the connection between health and pleasure. In interviews, Vidal-Naquet reveals his own politics by describing Leo as a “sex worker,” but Varda (who made the pioneering prostitution film Cleo from 5 to 7) knew better, preferring to avoid any convenient liberal label for her social outlaw.
Vidal-Naquet’s 22-year-old protagonist (with his dim-witted boyishness, Maritaud resembles Eric Swalwell) evokes the provincial youths Andre Téchiné introduced to the big city in his classics The Witnesses (Les Témoins) and I Don’t Kiss (J’embrasse pas). The latter title is referenced when Leo’s easygoing traits are questioned. Because Leo is pure id, Vidal-Naquet cracks our media’s buttoned-up hypocrisy regarding queer-sex identification. He’s driven by impulses that politics do not describe and cannot define, so we become aware of hidden hegemony — the nice, proper, middle-class assurance and normalizing — that are implicit in the smiley Buttigieg campaign strategy.
This candid storytelling approach is true artistic progress, not like last year’s pandering teen-com Love, Simon, which explicitly presented adolescent same-sex romance as part of Obama-era “evolution.” Leo’s outré drama swings between extremes of shoplifting for sustenance and instinctive, promiscuous intimacy. When swarthy, bantam hustler Ahd (Éric Bernard) rebuffs Leo’s advances but agrees to snuggle instead, he tells Leo, “We’re not animals.” This uneasy relationship between ethnically different hustlers — including sociopathic petty thief Mihal (Nicolas Dibla) and Leo’s various johns — raises philosophical questions about survival and license, concerns that cannot be legislated.
Instead of promoting homosexuality as a New York Times lifestyle article would, and proselytizing it as a political issue, Sauvage/Wild acknowledges it as an aspect of humanity.
Following Varda’s adventurousness, Vidal-Naquet teeters between documentary realism and narrative details that are both graphic and emotional. Sauvage/Wild is surprising and compelling for scenes that constantly convince you of Leo’s sympathetic humanity, whether he is being childlike, naïve, angry, tender, filthy, or troublesome.
Ahd breaks away from Leo with the weighty kiss-off “You were made to be loved.” This observation connects Sauvage/Wild to Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 Tea and Sympathy, a deceptively conventional melodrama about the question of masculine sexual identity. In that movie, a farewell letter read in a garden posits two men’s differences: an adult who wanted to be left alone and a youth who wanted to kill himself. In Vidal-Naquet’s closing image, Leo is seen as both.
That Tea and Sympathy garden scene is one of the most exquisitely moving closing sequences in film history — exquisite because appreciating it requires an uncomfortable understanding of ethical choice in relations between human beings and their individual choices about leading their own lives.
Minnelli’s spiritual vision is one that, today, gets conflated with identity and political expedience. Pete Buttigieg oversimplified this conflict — and confused it — when he speciously lambasted Vice President Mike Pence, saying, in a speech at an LGBTQ Victory Fund event: “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. . . . If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” In keeping with the PC mores, Buttigieg has refused to acknowledge Pence’s largess in respecting Buttigieg for his human capacities, his personal lifestyle choices notwithstanding.
Vidal-Naquet’s film helps to clarify this gamesmanship by revisiting the conflict between gay liberation’s sexual outlawry and queer rights’ absolutism. Sauvage/Wild may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is significant for reasserting the perhaps generational argument over political and personal rights that the mainstream media have succeeded in suppressing.