Writer-Director Camille Vidal-Naquet discusses telling the story of a male sex worker with humour, romance, and a frank approach to nudity.
Opening the Critics’ Week section of the Cannes Film Festival, the feature debut from French director Camille Vidal-Naquet is an unusual gem which manages to address sex work without either demonising or glorifying it.
The film follows Leo (played by BPM actor Félix Maritaud), a 22-year-old gay prostitute who does not do this for the money. He never negotiates his fees, and never trades his body for comfort or even a bed to sleep in at night. What he cares about is love. Rejected by the man who has his heart — another male sex worker he shares a strip of road with — Leo finds comfort in the arms of the men he encounters through his work. But these men from all walks of life — young, old, rich or poor — can never give Leo the romantic affection he craves.
The film is particularly striking for its explicit sex — from fellatio to penetration, to caresses, everything is done, and nothing is ever hidden. But as the film progresses, our prudish modesty quickly fades out. The film’s most impressive feat becomes its ability to juggle sex work and romance simultaneously.
Vidal-Naquet talked to us in Cannes about his original vision for the film, avoiding voyeurism, normalising nudity, and working with people who were acting for the very first time.
Seventh Row (7R): You are also a film teacher. How did making a film come about? Was it something you wanted to do for a long time?
Camille Vidal-Naquet (CVN): I’ve been making short films for a while, so it’s been a long process. I’m very prudent, and I always take my time. I only make films when I have something really important to say or to show. There were moments when I waited a long time because I thought it wasn’t interesting enough. But then, a few years ago, this project came about, and I felt that it should be feature length; that I needed to make it at this moment; that it would be my first feature. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t making other short films on the side.
7R: Why did you choose to make a film set in the milieu of male, gay sex work? It’s not something we see very often in cinema.
CVN: This rarity was definitely a factor. I didn’t start this project thinking I’d make a film about a particular milieu. I didn’t tell myself, “Let’s investigate male prostitution.” I had in mind a narrative structure: I saw a character who went through situations and who wasn’t really affected by them. He always remained standing and solid, and went from encounter to encounter, looking for love. I imagined him very marginalised — someone who lived above the rules and didn’t care at all about material life.
Very quickly, it brought me to the topic of precarity. After that, I arrived at the theme of male prostitution. I wrote the script, and only then did I have this desire and need to see this reality on the ground myself. Something happened there, and I realised that it would be more complicated than I’d planned.'I didn’t tell myself, 'Let’s investigate male prostitution.' I had in mind a narrative structure.'Click To Tweet
7R: Complicated in what sense?
CVN: Complicated in the good sense of the term. It turned out that it wasn’t just research or investigation. I met people. I had powerful, significant encounters, and I remained in contact with those people for many years. I’d go see them regularly, and we’d meet a bit like friends.
Writing the film thus took much longer than planned, but it kept enriching the script. I realised that, indeed, the people I met are often invisible. We don’t see or talk about them often. I think that this added to my desire to represent and show them.
7R: How did you manage to show that milieu and this work without falling into voyeurism? Although the film is very explicit, it doesn’t feel voyeuristic.
CVN: I think I was careful not to pass a moral judgment on those situations. I neither condemn nor glorify anything. My real aspiration was to be with these people. I wanted to live with these situations and people without passing any judgment. We identify with them, and I do not pass any judgment. The absence of voyeurism might come from that. I have a rather honest desire to be transparent regarding those scenes, and I let the people watching make their own judgment. I’m here to make visible these invisibles.
I think that there is also a lot of humanity. I felt for all those years that, very often, prostitutes were reduced to functions. We say “prostitutes”, but to me, it doesn’t mean much to say that word. There are 10,000 kinds of prostitutes. I tried to film them most of all as people, each with their own temperaments and personalities — some of them very pleasant personalities, others very aggressive. But I tried to show the humanity of these boys. They’re human beings.'I’m here to make visible these invisibles.'Click To Tweet
7R: There are many moments of nudity in the film, and none of them feel forced or shocking. How did you manage that?
CVN: I tried to present nudity as ordinary. To me, there needed to be nothing spectacular about nudity. It’s their work, so I just wanted to show that they have no qualms about being naked.
A choreographer worked with all the actors who had sex scenes, teaching them to distance themselves from their own bodies, to have a different body language, not to hesitate when they get undressed, to feel comfortable, and to feel like their bodies were works of art — a work tool for cinema.
This quickly brought them to this sort of relaxation and an absence of any complexes. It gave them a rather mechanical air. I think that’s why we get very quickly used to the nudity in the film. For these boys, nudity is quite simply their work outfit. We’re as used to it as if they were wearing a butcher’s apron or a firefighter uniform. It’s the same thing.'For these boys, nudity is quite simply their work outfit.'Click To Tweet
7R: There are many films shot in a rather similar visual style, with handheld camera, but in Sauvage, there are also some more interesting visual elements, such as quick zoom-ins on characters’ faces.
CVN: I worked with a Director of Photography who is very talented at handheld. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to work with him. I wanted the entire film to be shot this way, because I wanted something that would be very instinctive, something primitive. The camera was never fixed. I wanted to have the freedom to move it very quickly, in whichever direction I wanted.
Having a handheld camera brought life and rhythm to the film. I didn’t want the film to be depressing and heavy, so I really liked the idea of the camera that would vibrate, even in more stabilised shots. It allowed me, in violent scenes, to have the camera become really dynamic, but also to bring a lot of softness — the camera could become very caressing. And I like that the DoP Jacques Girault was very intuitive.
I liked the crash zoom because it is unexpected, and it gives a little jolt of acceleration in the image, which I think brings a lot to the film.
7R: The film is also very romantic.
CVN: At the beginning, it was much more dry. I was really focused on that idea of the character being strong, so he was very serious. But the more I worked on the film, the more I realised that the entry point would be his love story, his sensibility.'The handheld camera could become very dynamic in violent scenes, or very caressing in others.'Click To Tweet
7R: Was is difficult to introduce that romantic element in the film without making everything else seem heartless and cold?
CVN: There is a contrast between his romantic sensibility and the harshness of his work environment. That was the most complicated part of the project. We had to work out a way to associate the ‘reportage’ side of the film — this raw portrait of a character — with the love story. I was afraid that integrating the love story would make me lose the chopped effect of the ‘chronicle’ aesthetic.
7R: The film is also very funny. There are a few minutes in the film where there are two or three sequences which feel like a string of little comedy sketches.
CVN: You know, because we’ve been working on the film so long, I’ve kind of lost the notion of what is funny and what isn’t. There were laughs at the screening this morning, and it really made me very happy that people laughed. They sometimes laughed at moments I really didn’t expect — notably, the first sequence, with the doctor. I think that what makes people laugh a lot is the juxtaposition of situations that are, to them, completely bewildering, but which the characters consider absolutely normal. I think this reaction is part of the life that’s brought into the film.'I think that what makes people laugh a lot is the juxtaposition of situations that are, to them, completely bewildering, but which the characters consider absolutely normal.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you choose the actor Félix Maritaud?
CVN: Someone had told me about him for this role, and so we met, without doing a casting. We had a chat, and it all went very well between us. I really loved his instinctive sensibility. He has an honesty and transparency — he doesn’t look at himself. He’s not outside of himself. I found that interesting.
I really liked the idea of a rather wild temperament. It put me in danger, a little. He’s someone who is very focused and professional, but who often goes into another direction, suggesting something new, and I had to bring him back to what I wanted. From this work was born a lot of the film’s energy.
7R: You mentioned in the introduction before the film that some of the actors in the film were acting for the first time. How did that work?
CVN: Jonathan Schall and Lea Triboulet did the casting in the Grand Est region. They did it all: they looked at actors; they went into clubs; sometimes, they would just meet with people they knew… We found ourselves with many people who had never acted before, and it was wonderful working with them.
7R: What was your process for helping them with their performances?
CVN: It happened in a general mood of trust and humanity. We talked a lot; we laughed together a lot; and we got to know each other. We went into the heart of the matter, and I realised that they weren’t afraid. I’m not sure I could explain that, because it is beyond me, too!
I couldn’t believe my eyes, when we were shooting, just how far they would throw themselves into their scenes. For example, the two mean guys that Leo visits — they had never been in a film before, and I think they’re incredible. They mostly found it very tiring. They really trusted me, and they really just wanted to serve the film, even though they had no way of knowing what the final product would be like… It really moved me, all those people giving so much to the film even though they’d never acted before. There was a real passion of being all together in that film.
We’ve covered several films about the lives of female sex workers, including the doc Blowin’ Up about women leaving the profession; Sugar Sisters, about whether being a Sugar Baby is a form of sex work; and Nelly, about the late Quebecois novelist. We’ve also covered many gay romances. We dedicated Special Issues to last year’s God’s Own Country, about sheep farmers falling in love in Yorkshire, and the summer idyll Call Me by Your Name. We also interviewed the director and lead actors of BPM, which Sauvage lead Félix Maritaud also starred in. His BPM co-star Nahuel Pérez Biscayart is on this year’s Critics’ Week jury.