Max Redmond Smith talks to director-actor duo Camille Vidal-Naquet and Félix Maritaud about their new film Sauvage, depicting honest sex on film, and feeling the frenzy of its central character.
Sauvage is Camille Vidal-Naquet’s debut feature film, having made three shorts prior. It is a touching and raw depiction of the daily life of a gay male sex worker in France. Félix Maritaud stars as Léo, a homeless hustler who was made for love but struggles to find it. Maritaud is a rising French star, known for his previous roles in 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) (English: 120 battements par minute) (2017), and Knife + Heart (2018)—our review of which you can find here.
On February 27, I sat down to talk to the pair about their approach to their work, their experience of collaborating on Sauvage (English: Savage), and their love for cinema. I sit a professional distance away from the two, and they quite charmingly protest that I sit closer. Félix is nonchalant but nevertheless magnetic. The amethyst around his neck epitomises it all; he is earnestly receptive but all the while his distinct character remains impregnable. He is very much the actor I admire most; both porous and irrepressible, I would very much like to see him work beside Isabelle Huppert soon. Camille is energetic and sincere, with an inviting quality. Unmistakably a director, he often guided the energy of the room with an easy command, and frequently pulled my eyes into his.
I tell Camille that Sauvage has stuck with me since seeing it last October at the BFI’s London Film Festival. He thanks me, and we share a laugh as he jocundly suggests that the interview should end here.
The sex in Sauvage really ran the gamut of emotion; it was not a mechanical sexuality. There are really tender moments, really sad moments, and you had violent, angry moments (which I’m not sure I would class as sex). Was it important for you to display the constellation of sexual encounters Léo had, and the varying emotions they carried?
Camille Vidal-Naquet: I think it was cinematographically interesting to wonder: how can you film softness, tenderness, and affection in a world that is full of brutality and doesn’t have any social rules? That’s very interesting because if you put in too much emotion it becomes like a romance, and a bit false to reality, which is not what I wanted. At the same time, if there’s not enough romance, you end up with a tough and brutal world, and that’s not what I wanted either. So the whole thing was— with the actors, with the director of photography, and the editor, and everyone—to be able to spot this tenderness, and make it exist, and to make it as true as possible. I think it’s very important to understand that in this world of male street-hustling, we tend to think that they are just functions, just hustlers, but before being hustlers they are people like you and me. So I think humanity was the basis of our work, and humanity is defined by mixed emotions. You do not always have one emotion. Sometimes you’re tough; sometimes you’re weak and you cry; other times you laugh. This is what we tried to do to enrich the content of the film—a lot of different, varying emotions.
Did you find that at all tough when you had a certain musicality that you wanted to achieve with the actors? I read, for example, that you knew how you wanted the actors to pronounce certain lines.
Camille Vidal-Naquet: Yeah, the thing I meant is that we are all here to work. I said that because some people think when they ask us questions that it was really not like work; like I came with my camera and we were improvising. What I want to say is that it was real work, and it was really written, and there was a lot of camerawork, and a lot of staging work, everything was planned, and we rehearsed a lot for everything to look like this—to look natural. It looks natural because there was work ahead of it. When people think we just turned up with our camera, to me it’s a compliment because it shows we worked well. Because they think it’s real, but it’s not real—it’s just cinema.
So yeah it was very important…because I’m very attached to the French language, and all the guys—well, most of the guys I met—who were gay hustlers, or more like male hustlers, were speaking correct language. And I see a lot of French movies in which they talk weird slang French, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to show that most of the people I had met had really beautiful words. They spoke in a very appropriate way, and I wanted to respect that. I still wanted it to be believable, so we worked a lot on the lines, and the lines were written, and we almost didn’t improvise. And yes there is a musicality you hear when you write, and I tried to have the actors find the same musicality I had in my head to make it feel real.
“We were not really thinking about his history, his future, where he comes from, only about what he feels in the scenes.”
Do you rehearse that with them, or did you try to let them interpret that first?
Camille Vidal-Naquet: No no, we rehearsed. I think there was one or two scenes where we tried to make some improvisation, but I almost didn’t keep anything in the end. I tried to do that but I thought it was a bad idea. I thought that when you improvise you can make something that would arrive in front of the camera but it never arrives actually. Because I think that actors are not writers, and they have to be confident, and they are much more confident when they know what to say. When you say improvise, they are a bit by themselves, they are a bit lost, and so I didn’t think it worked properly. So no, there was not a lot of improvisation.
Félix Maritaud: Yes, a director directs. It was even the same sometimes the way I had to speak those words. Like [Felix performs a staccato beat to the effect of da-dun-dun-dun], and the intonations.
Is that something you look for in a creative collaboration?
Félix Maritaud: Yeah, sure, sure. A director, directs. An actor is doing.
Camille Vidal-Naquet: Yeah, sometimes the actor can think that they are being given orders by the director, but actually I have experienced that the actors are much more at ease when you arrive and say, “No it’s not that way, it’s this way,” because they feel comfortable. My job as a director, I’m convinced, is to be sure that the actors arrive at their best. And if it doesn’t [happen] and it’s not okay, I’ll always say it. I think it’s your job and responsibility when you’re a director to be sure that the actor could not do better—it is the top he is giving. Working like this is very satisfying for the actors themselves. It might be harder for them to work but, afterward, I know that they are so satisfied when they see the result. I think that’s the least you can do for them. Especially in that movie [Sauvage] when they gave so much, I had to give back and be very precise and give indications.
Had you fleshed out the character much before you gave it to Felix ? Or did you have a lot of a conversation together about Leo?
Camille Vidal-Naquet: I think this character has to be understood, not explained. I don’t think you can explain this character. I think Felix got it, he read it, he had all the good intuitions, he was already as an actor…he had this fusion, and he was becoming the character for me. I think that helped the process a lot. We worked with the body, the voice, the look, but we were not really thinking.
Félix Maritaud: We were not really thinking about his history, his future, where he comes from, only about what he feels in the scenes.
“I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m not saying anything. I just want us to live with him. I think that there is cinema here.”
This in-depth character study, with its intense focus on the body, reminded me of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies [Camille slides a piece of paper and pen toward me, and I jot down Muybridge’s name.] At the birth of cinema, Muybridge’s work showcased how cinema specifically could facilitate these focuses on motion, with audiovisual documentation of animal and human locomotion, and performance doing kinetic tasks. Was there something particular that you felt cinema would facilitate when you met these hustlers and started this project?
Camille Vidal-Naquet: Yes, because what struck me was that it was a job. Everyone knows that prostitution exists, but you never know what the everyday life of a sex worker is. I thought, “What is it like to have to turn tricks all the time?”. In English they “turn a trick”, but in French, they use a euphemism “to fuck” basically—it means that you have a sexual relationship with someone, so instead of just using a euphemism I say, what does it look like to have sex with someone? I think it’s important. But like you’d film any job, if I were to film a baker, I would film him making the bread. I would not avoid it, that would not make sense. So, it’s the same with people having sex—it’s a job.
I felt that there was a cinema project here—from the point of view of a sex worker, it’d be a different view on prostitution. It’s not a cynical point of view. It’s just a day-to-day basis with no judgement. I don’t say that what he is doing is great, but I don’t condemn it as well. I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m not saying anything. I just want us to live with him. I think that there is cinema here. Prostitution covers so many political and social themes: migrants, police, law, drugs—all these things. It’s so rich I had to shorten the script. It’s so big, and I wanted to cover everything, [but] I think it’s just better to be focused on that character, all the people he encounters, and all the humanity that there is in this world.
Did you have much an influence on the editing process then?
Camille Vidal-Naquet: Oh yeah. The editing, like the rest of the film, was really organic. Our theme was a heartbeat: there are cuts every time his heart is beating. There is this epileptic editing process. The cuts are not justified by the logic of action, [but rather] the feelings of the character and his energy. So it jumps all the time, like something hectic.
I worked with a very, very sensitive editor, and it was like what we did with the camerawork. It was all heartfelt. It is very interesting to work that way; we’re not always working all the time with logic, action, drama. You try to feel the vibration of the scene and try to make it organic. So in the film, we used the zoom—the zoom-in and zoom-out. You know, to me, it was more like when you have diaphragm contractions. Well, this is the same thing – spasms with the camera. Trying to make the audience feel exactly what Leo feels in his body. That is what I was trying to do with the camera.
Have you read that part of Linda Williams Hard Core  in which she discusses the “Frenzy of the Visible”?
Camille Vidal-Naquet: No [Camille laughs and pushes forward the piece of paper from earlier to me again, and asks me to write this down also]. You’re making my education today. So what is this?
Williams argues that in pornographic texts there is a “frenzy of the visible”, when a woman orgasms because the internal orgasms must be externalised, unlike a man’s ejaculation.
Camille Vidal-Naquet: Does it make sense when I say this about Sauvage? Is it accurate?
Yeah, there is this frenzy of this heartbeat, and this pulse to the whole film. It made a link in my head with this heartbeat in Sauvage, and this formally externalised way of presenting Léo’s internal.
Camille Vidal-Naquet: Yeah, there’s an organic filming. Well, thanks for this new reference!
“So one day I took paper and wrote everything and put it in a drawer. I didn’t think this could be a movie, but it was cathartic and I felt much better.”
Felix, I read in a recent interview you did that you take photographs of derelict and dilapidated places. Did this have any influence at all on your performance or the way you approached it?
Félix Maritaud: I think that everything, as a human being, everything that is yours, has an influence on what you’re doing. I wasn’t born the second before. Camille had a very precise point of view, and I was just fitting it—but naturally.
Have you considered a future foray into cinematography?
Félix Maritaud: Not camerawork. I want to direct actors and actresses. I want to make them feel something. I think it’s amazing to take some people, and take them to a world of fiction, and to make them feel something that has no existence, and to create humanity. I think humanity is beautiful, the most beautiful thing.
I wanted to ask if there is anything about the film Sauvage, or just cinema at large for you, that has functioned as some sort of help in your life, or an answer to something in your life?
Félix Maritaud: You are so smart.
[We share a laugh]
Camille Vidal-Naquet: This is a very difficult question.
Félix Maritaud: Yes, you are right. I think that cinema helps to understand what’s not yours. It’s good to make your mind and your heart more flexible. What I like when I go to watch a movie is that I feel touched by something that doesn’t bother me at all, and this is what is beautiful in movies. You know, cinema is a place where you’re alone but surrounded by people, and you all get the same information, and you [also] have it on your own. So that’s pretty beautiful, I think.
Camille Vidal-Naquet: I can answer by saying that when I wrote this film I had it in my head for a while, and I didn’t intend to make a movie out of it. I just wanted to write it for myself; it was very important to me. So one day I took paper and wrote everything and put it in a drawer. I didn’t think this could be a movie, but it was cathartic and I felt much better. I thought nobody would read it, so I think it was very honest. Then finally a producer read it, and we made a film out of it. But when I wrote it, I think there was something really helpful for me; I really needed to write this, but it was really authentic because I didn’t think it was for anybody—it was just pure emotions. It went further when I first wrote it, it was more harsh, I think, and I had to rewrite it. But I think it helped a lot, and I was confronted with this film that I would consider staying small and it became this huge thing now travelling around the world. Which makes me very impressed, and intimated by this career. I didn’t think it’d go this way, so I’m trying to learn to accept the film now.
You can read our review of Sauvage here.