An Excellent Worker: An Interview with Camille Vidal-Naquet (Web Exclusive)
by David A. Gerstner
Camille Vidal-Naquet’s first feature film, Sauvage/Wild (hereafter, Sauvage), premiered as an Official Selection of the Critics Week at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, when Félix Maritaud (who plays Léo in the film) was awarded the Louis Roederer Foundation Rising Star Award. Since Cannes, the film has been awarded Best Feature Film (Oslo/Fusion Film Festival, 2018); Best First Film (Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur, 2018); Ocana Award for Best LGBT Title (Seville Film Festival, 2018); Best Queer Film (FEST—International Film Festival, Belgrade, 2019). Indeed, the film has traveled widely around the world, making many stops in the United States. The popularity of the film prompted Film Forum in New York to add additional screenings to meet ticket demand. The film has received strong reviews from critics and equally strong responses from audience members. Sauvage is a provocative film that operates in complicated registers—aesthetically and emotionally.
The film follows Léo, a male hustler in France. The camera remains tightly connected to Léo as he moves from scene to scene, where his sexual encounters are frankly and explicitly rendered. But as Vidal-Naquet emphasizes, the sex we see in Sauvage is work. Léo is a sex worker. His body is the instrument that allows him, the director tells us, to be an “excellent worker.” Along with his director of photography (DP) Jacques Girault, Vidal-Naquet in fact placed a great deal of attention on the working hands in the film. Spending months to prepare the film, the director and his DP went to great lengths to achieve an affective lighting scheme that equalized the film’s entire palette. “Lighting is moral,” Vidal-Naquet tells me. As such, “the filmmakers tried to film all the scenes the same way. No, to be more accurate: we wanted to film the sex scenes to be no different than the others.” His comment and, to be sure, the emphasis Vidal-Naquet places on his overall cinematic strategies underline the complex world we are asked to at once participate in and observe as objective viewers.
Seen this way, Sauvage asks the audience to watch the film on two important fronts. First, we witness extreme homoerotic sexuality that invites the viewer into a powerful, sexualized experience with the cinema. Second, we observe Léo’s sexual performance as if through a sociologist’s viewfinder. Separating these two viewing positions is not a simple task. The sex scenes between men are—to put it inelegantly—hot. And Vidal-Naquet does not dismiss the homoerotic pleasures in Sauvage that the audience experiences. The sex is, without question, a crucial element to watching Sauvage. But the director insists that the film not be overlooked for the theoretical and aesthetic impulses that drive his filmmaking concept. Léo is a worker and Vidal-Naquet engages cinematic technique to illuminate what he refers to as “invisible” labor.
As we discover, months of preplanning and research went into preparing Sauvage, a film that appears improvisational and shot on the fly. The film in effect showcases Vidal-Naquet’s carefully charted plans for camera movement, lighting, and performance. The paradoxical effect, therefore, is that Sauvage manages a taut hyperaestheticized film that appears as if a piece of cinéma vérité. Q&A sessions following screenings of the film invariably raise this perspective from those watching the film. Many find it hard to believe that the spontaneity we see was, in fact, rehearsed.
When spending time with Vidal-Naquet, however, it becomes clear that he is a precise filmmaker where no detail is overlooked. This driving force for precision finds its roots in a career framed by rigorous literary studies that, ultimately, led to a Master’s Degree (some early work in a doctoral program followed). With a broad and often deep concentration on literary texts, Vidal-Naquet comes to the cinema in such a way that literature and cinema yield a complex vision for the filmmaker. At turns, classical texts and pop culture filter through Vidal-Naquet’s striking erudition and complex compassion for the world in which we live.
Our interview was conducted in English. It took place in April in New York while Vidal-Naquet and Maritaud were in town to introduce Sauvage for its premiere at the New Directors/New Films Festival. Vidal-Naquet is generous with his time. Our conversation wended its way through the director’s early studies in literature, approach to engaging his cinematic influences, making a first short film, and, finally, how these experiences permeated the director’s conceptualization for Sauvage.—David A. Gerstner
Cineaste: Before you arrived in Paris and made films, you had an immersive experience in French academia. Would you describe those studies and how they fed into your interests in cinema?
Vidal-Naquet: Well, I come from a family of teachers. My parents, brothers, and sisters all teach. I studied literature, yet I knew I wanted to make films. I’ve always known this. But, yeah, I took my time to do it. So, I studied because, in my family, that’s what we do. We make long studies.
Cineaste: In fact, your long studies were pretty intense as you worked your way through the French educational system.
Vidal-Naquet: Yes, and I slowly recognized that I was becoming a teacher. I enjoyed my studies. It was not something I did against my will. I knew I wanted to make movies, but I had no difficulty in studying literature. In Bourgogne, I completed one year of hypokhâgne and two years of khâgne [a rigorous series of preparatory classes meant to prepare students for studies in the Humanities at Écoles normales supérieures] where we study everything. Along with studies in French language, we studied philosophy, history, geography, English, Latin, Greek, and Ancient Greek. It was too complete but it was really, really a great period of deep study.
Cineaste: After khâgne in Bourgogne, you moved to Paris?
Vidal-Naquet: Yes, in 1994. In Paris, because I very much like the kind of intensity khâgne offered, I planned to be a teacher. I obtained a Master’s Degree in Literature where I wrote a mémoire [thesis] on literature and cinema. When I finished, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in the same area.
Cineaste: So, literature and cinema remained your core subject area?
Vidal-Naquet: Yes. It was funny because my first choice of subject for my dissertation was The Evil Dead by Sam Raimi. As you might imagine, in France, some thought it peculiar to come out of really classical studies in literature, and arrive at your university for a PhD and say, “I want to write a dissertation on The Evil Dead.” [Laughs]. My advisors said, “What do you mean The Evil Dead? What’s that?” So, that didn’t really work out. I don’t really know why I finally decided not to do it. In fact, I started and stopped on several topics—one was a study of Ridley Scott’s screenwriting technique for Alien. But again, I started then stopped. I knew it was time for me to stop studying, and turn to the movies. Cinema was progressively entering my life.
Cineaste: Did the cinema become more of preoccupation once when you arrived in Paris?
Vidal-Naquet: Yeah. And what happened is that I met some students who were also studying cinema. With them, I made my first short film, Génie. It’s an adaptation of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, Génie, which is the last poem of his Les Illuminations. It’s my favorite poem that I studied in khâgne. For the film, we translated it into sign language. I had met this guy in Paris who is deaf and mute, and I thought, “How is it possible to transmit the beauty of this poem, without the words, but just with the body?” So, the concept was basically one of choreography, to transmit the emotion of a poem. It took almost six months to translate it into sign language. For me, it was interesting because a poem works through sound and hearing. If you can’t hear it, though, how else might we feel its beauty?
Cineaste: Is this when you began to think about the relationship between the camera and the body?
Vidal-Naquet: Well, it’s difficult for me to say, but now that we are both talking about it, yes, there is a connection. The relation being, also, that every time I’ve made a movie [laughs]—well, I didn’t make a lot of movies! I’ve only made three short films before Sauvage—they have focused on one young man. In Génie, like Sauvage, the film concentrates on one guy in his twenties. Nothing else but him. My films explore—so far—solitude. We see a boy alone, only his body. Body, dance, choreography. In fact, the actors in Sauvage went through a great deal of choreographic training prior to shooting.
Cineaste: Were you involved with any choreographers or dancers at the time you shot Génie?
Vidal-Naquet: Not really. I think making Génie was more a time for me to work through questions of the body. Before that, the body was something abstract for me. It was more about feelings, how the body reacts to feelings, things like that. It was very theoretical, and it took a while for me to conceptualize how to film the body directly.
Cineaste: Okay. Along with Rimbaud, what other literary figures are drawn into your filmmaking concepts?
Vidal-Naquet: Flaubert. Flaubert allowed me to discover a personal theory, one that has an important connection between literary studies and film history. So, if you include this in the interview, please be careful. It’s just a theory.
Cineaste: Okay, go on.
Vidal-Naquet: I can’t help but think a connection exists between Flaubert’s and Michelangelo Antonioni’s ideas about existence. They both seem to me to deal with existence as a “flat line.”
Cineaste: It’s a curious metaphor since, in English, we think of “flat lining” as the sign for death. In a hospital when someone dies, the machine that registers the patient’s vital signs changes from a dynamic line when they are alive and “flat lines” when the patient dies.
Vidal-Naquet: Interesting. This is perhaps what I am getting at but, for Flaubert and Antonioni, a trace of life remains with the flat line. You know, I have this feeling that these two artists made an intellectual rupture for me. It’s not like their novels and movies are made out of big action. It’s the opposite—nothing ever changes. The novels and films present a line of existence; a life of deception, disenchantment. I think I discovered this connection because Flaubert had a strong effect on me in my youth and then, years later, Antonioni had the same effect on me. They record characters walking along a line that shows them merely existing. And the “dramas” we see in their works never really take them off their “flat-line” existence.
In any case, I also adore Jean Genet’s as well as Marguerite Duras’s writings. But I must add André Gide because one of his novels that I discovered when I studied at khâgne was The Counterfeiters . I’ve read it something like twenty times, and I’ve made this huge chart of all the characters and their connections. I like it when stories are that complicated. Gide’s novel has about thirty characters. It’s impossible to understand, to read, to remember. It’s something you work on. It’s an endless puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle.
Cineaste: For you, then, a complex and pleasurable text is one that invites the reader to work, to reshape, and reinvent. What films offer you the same sort of pleasurable labor?
Vidal-Naquet: I have five. Well, four and a half. I’ll explain. The first film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho . You see, I read somewhere—I hope I’m not wrong—Luc Dardenne (I think it was him) says that you can fall in love with a movie, and you can feel chosen by a movie. It’s like love at first sight, like when you meet someone, and you’re going to start a relationship. Sometimes, and it’s going to be exactly like a married couple with that film, you will have passion with them. Sometimes, you get used to the relationship, like when you’re married. But then, the relationship unexpectedly rekindles. You will always stick together, however, because you’re married for life. You feel, in other words, elected—you’ve met a love of your life.
For me, these five films I’m about to discuss—or, rather these four and a half films—give me that sensation. There’s something going on between me and these films. We are an item. We’re a couple. Sometimes, I cannot stand them. Sometimes, as much as I admire them, I’m disappointed by them. I wish I was like them. And, as with any relationship’s ups and downs, I always feel secure, confident, and in love with them.
Cineaste: Are these films, then, similar to the way you experience, say, the complexities of Gide’s text?
Vidal-Naquet: Yes, sort of. But, with these films, I sometimes just watch part of them. I know them by heart. They don’t make sense to me anymore. They’re not real films to me. They’re things, they’re matter, they’re cinematographic material. So, Psycho, for example, which is one of the most important loves for me—I’ve seen it at least one hundred times—I watch regularly. Every year. But sometimes, I only watch one scene. Sometimes I spend thirty minutes with it, other times, I spend five seconds. I just need to see it. I cannot spend a year without watching it.
Cineaste: The second?
Vidal-Naquet: Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill . This film is, of course, connected to Psycho. It’s funny, before sitting down with you for this interview, I went to the Met Museum. I didn’t go into the Met this visit; instead, I went to see the steps of the Met. I did this because that is where De Palma shot Dressed to Kill when Kate Miller [Angie Dickinson] leaves the museum. I went there just to “watch” the steps so that I could I re-enact the crane movement when Kate exits the museum, throws her white glove aside when she thinks she has lost the other. The camera then pans to the awaiting yellow cab in which the mysterious man sits, luring Kate by dangling the missing glove. It’s a great sequence, and this morning I “retook” it with my iPhone.
Cineaste: It appears that certain films powerfully draw you into a tight, physical—even, visceral—relationship to their use of time and place.
Vidal-Naquet: My dream, because I’m in New York, is to go to all the New York locations for Dressed to Kill. I know De Palma shot not only the steps of the Met but I also know where to find Dr. Elliot’s office and the Sheraton Hotel. I’d love to have the full list. Anyway, like Psycho, I watch Dressed to Kill, sometimes in parts, every year.
The third film is Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad . I must have seen this film as many times as Psycho, if not more. It is much easier to watch parts, because it’s almost made to be watched this way. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, like the literary works I mentioned earlier. Sometimes, I watch the end, the beginning, or the middle. Often, I pause the film and contemplate the image. Last Year at Marienbad is always here with me. When you think about it, there’s a huge connection with Resnais’s film and Hitchcock’s Vertigo  and Psycho. Vertigo, in fact, has a very strong link because both films involve a man saying to a woman, “I know you. I know who you are, because we met last year, and that’s you.” And she says, “No, you must be mistaken. It’s not me.” And that’s what happens in Vertigo. In the second part of the film, Scotty [James Stewart], finds the woman he has been searching for from the first part of the film and says to her, “It’s you!” Madeleine/Judy [Kim Novak] responds, “No, you must be mistaken.” And this is the same for me with Last Year at Marienbad. Resnais’s film is an echo of Vertigo.
Cineaste: Your list, so far, highlights films and filmmakers whose cinema is precisely structured.
Vidal-Naquet: True. It’s the same with my fourth selection but the structure comes to me differently because of its historical context—Battleship Potemkin . Again, it’s one that I watch regularly but Eisenstein invites the viewer to experience the film along two fronts—sound and image. What I mean by this is that although it is a silent film, it always had some sort of musical accompaniment. But the soundtrack has constantly changed over the years. In fact, Eisenstein had very complicated ideas about the relation between image and sound. He rightfully insisted on the precision of the cinematic images (framing, montage, and so on), and hoped that they would remain as he prepared them, especially in Battleship Potemkin. But, for this film, he wished the musical soundtrack to be redone, reactualized, every twenty years. And so, now, as you know, many have offered new scores, like the Pet Shop Boys in 2006. It’s a brilliant score, by the way (thank you, Pet Shop Boys). In any case, Eisenstein’s film invites me to try different scores.
Cineaste: Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera  had a similar history of soundtracks. There’s always new—
Vidal-Naquet: Always. I think it particularly makes sense with Battleship Potemkin. When you listen, it’s very interesting because, for instance, the Pet Shop Boys did a very pop score. It’s at once orchestral but pop at the same time. And it works. One might say, “You cannot put British pop electronic music on Eisenstein.” But it works, it works! Meaning, not only are the Pet Shop Boys excellent musicians, but also Eisenstein’s images are so powerful that no soundtrack can destroy them. New soundtracks can, in fact, open the images to new possible interpretations. Eisenstein’s images don’t have any time limit.
Cineaste: And what is the fourth and a half film? And why is it identified as only one half?
Vidal-Naquet: I say it’s a “half” film because I came to it only seven or eight years ago. In that time, it’s only proven more important to me. It’s Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu .
Cineaste: Why half? And why only recently?
Vidal-Naquet: Because I’ve watched the other films since the 1990s, and this one I’ve only been watching within the past seven or eight years. I saw it a long time ago. But you know how it is—when you first see a film it doesn’t fully hit you. Later, it returns with some impact and you don’t know why. You just need it. And just like the others, I’m watching it again and again. I watch it in parts, listen to it in fragments, and think about how incredibly unexpected Renoir’s script plays out. I’m really fascinated with the script. How did he write it? When I watch La règle du jeu, I have a feeling that at times the script is completely random yet completely perfect. It’s a mix. I don’t know where I am. Is it totally random? Or am I reading Renoir’s pure preprogrammed genius? The film itself gives a sensation of freedom.
Cineaste: So, each time you return to these films in different ways to experience different elements of them?
Vidal-Naquet: Yes. I call them my “nightstand films.” They are intimate films that I keep close to my “bedside” (I am speaking metaphorically, of course). My relationship to these films is all sensory. I’m telling you, it’s like a couple. It’s a need. I need to watch the film. I just need it. I’m not looking for anything. When I need to look for something particular in terms of editing or something, it’s not those movies I turn to.
Cineaste: If I look at this list of writers and filmmakers, and we consider your theory about the “flat line” of existence where characters walk through their existence as well as your thoughts on time and space in relationship to the young man alone in the world, a link can be made to Léo (Félix Maritaud), the central figure in Sauvage. He exists and simply walks through time and place. The camera follows the boy walking, his solitude.
Vidal-Naquet: Well, if so, I have to make yet another connection, and that is with the Nouveau Roman [New Novel] writers. I would say that the one thing I always find fascinating with Nouveau Roman is the way this group of writers repeat patterns. They repeat patterns. All the time. They do this in the same voice, over and over, and in an obsessive way. I think obsession is key to Sauvage. But it’s also about persistence. Perhaps this is the “line of existence” we spoke about earlier; a line marked by repeating patterns. Of course, it’s a lot like the New Wave as well. Their films present a world where you didn’t exactly know the characters, where they came from, where they were going, and there were no endings, just open endings.
Cineaste: Indeed, many reviewers have compared Sauvage to Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi [Vagabond, 1985] because of the way your film follows a character who appears in media res, moving through the world, existing by whatever means are available to them. But your film also recalls Truffaut’s The Wild Child  not only in title. Léo moves in a world caught between “sauvage/wild,” and a “civilized” homosexual bourgeois world. After seeing the film, my colleague suggested that the ending to your film was more utopic than that of Varda or Truffaut. I don’t see Sauvage as utopic but, rather—and, at the risk of repeating a theme—existential.
Vidal-Naquet: Well, I think it’s more, it’s something—how do you say?—visceral.
Something really instinctive. The film invites you to spend time with someone; you share time with a character who is disconnected from time. This is very different than what we do in our everyday lives. We program what’s next. We all know what our appointments are, what we’re going to do the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year. And we remember what we did the day before. In Sauvage, we encounter a character of the instant. This doesn’t exist in real life. I’ve never met anyone like this. Léo is pure instant which, at the same time, is extremely powerful yet extremely desperate. I will never know this life. Never. Nor you, I think. None of us. But, this character, he’s just living the intensity of pure moments. With the film, we just share these moments with him. We don’t know who he is. It doesn’t matter. As the film goes on, we are surprised at not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next.
I do hope the film succeeds in this way. We worked very hard to make each scene an unexpected moment. There’s no logical development. For example, it would have been logical that someone says to Léo, “You should see a doctor,” and he responds, “Okay, I have an appointment with a woman doctor. I’m going to see her on Tuesday.” We removed all this sort of cause-and-effect dialogue or narrative setup. You never know how it comes to be that Léo is at the doctor’s office, a doctor who is a woman, and so forth. The scenes in the film are only moments. We tried to disconnect these from a logical timeline.
Cineaste: This is why I think of your films in relationship to Truffaut and other New Wave filmmakers, in terms of the vignetting of moments. Along with Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Jean-Luc Godard come to mind.
Vidal-Naquet: What do you mean by “vignetting”?
Cineaste: The films are made up of little vignettes, little moments. Elements of time and place that are loosely strung together but nevertheless hang onto a fragile narrative line. And it seems that line in your film is the body of the male hustler, Léo. His walking threads together moments that are, as you say, intense, pure instant.
Vidal-Naquet: Yes, exactly.
Cineaste: In this way, what we experience with the film is Léo’s existence, one that straddles the animalistic with the so-called civilized world. Yet, the moral values placed on these distinctions are quite blurry in Sauvage. It is arguable whether the johns in the film—the sadist pianist, for instance—are animals or pillars of society (the former walk the streets, while the latter moves around town in his Jaguar). At one point in the film, Ahd (Éric Bernard)—the character who Léo sees as an intimate older brother—seeks to remind the younger hustler that they must get off the street by finding an older, wealthy man. “We are not animals,” Ahd offers in his defense for settling down with a sugar daddy. It’s a very interesting assertion directed more to the audience, I think, than to Léo because he actually takes pleasure in his animal-like existence. At the same time, he discovers something beautiful about living both as animal and as human. Ahd, on the other hand, can only see the world as a place to be lived in as human.
Vidal-Naquet: Yes, there is something primitive to Léo, instinctive, and, of course, it’s the theme of the film. Léo is untamed. He’s a wild animal. When you think about it, the character of Léo reminds us that we live by rules of society, those set by modern cities. We’ve all been tamed. We’re all tamed animals.
Cineaste: Marxists would call that ideology, right? Or a form of inculcation that Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish.
Vidal-Naquet: Exactly. That’s how we live. But Léo is untamed, he’s much wilder, and the film is all about this animal fighting with his impulses to go into society, to be domesticated. Jean Marc Lalanne, the French film critic and journalist, made a fantastic analysis of the film that is available among the French DVD extras. He analyzes the animal behavior in Sauvage and finds that Léo behaves like a stray dog—he drinks water from the streets, he willingly sleeps in the streets, he eats garbage without disgust. For us, if we were really lost in a big city, and we didn’t have a dollar to buy water, it would be very difficult for us to imagine going to the gutter for a drink of water. It’s difficult to comprehend. And the thing I emphasized with Félix when directing these difficult moments in the film was that he cannot hesitate to drink the water from the gutter. Félix needed to treat his performance as if each gesture was normal, like a dog, because that’s what dogs do. Dogs don’t stop to think, “I’m not going to do that,” when they are hungry or thirsty. I had to direct Félix to be direct and immediate. It was a huge effort in terms of directing and acting.
Cineaste: There’s another element of the film that invokes the stray dog but in a different way. The basic instincts for survival not only require food and water, the stray dog also often gives affection when it receives affection. If you give a bit of affection to a stray dog, the dog may come to you in hopes of a kind gesture—along with food, of course.
Vidal-Naquet: Yes, like a dog and his master. I’m happy you bring this up, because there is a scene that I really like in the film. It’s the scene when Ahd and Léo fight with one another and Léo yells, “Don’t leave me!” Ahd then hits Léo on the street. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen somebody hit their dog on the street and yet the dog keeps following the master. He keeps returning because he doesn’t know what to do other than follow his master, even if he has been beaten. This is how we directed the scene. Léo is hit, but he always comes back, running after his master. I think it is a very interesting scene—although some people thought it was violent. For me, it was really animal. A human would, hopefully, respond differently: “Why did you hit me?,” or, “Are you crazy?” The dog just runs after his master.
Cineaste: Is Léo masochistic?
Vidal-Naquet: Would you say that a dog is a masochist? You wouldn’t. You would just say his behavior is normal. A dog is not a masochist. He doesn’t know, he doesn’t have any other way of acting.
Cineaste: To be masochistic, then, is reserved for humans. Yet, and as you say, Léo’s instinctual impulses are not dissimilar to a stray dog but Léo discovers human warmth with certain aspects of the civilized world. There is another important scene in Sauvage that circles in on what we have been discussing as an instinct for affection. Early in the film, Léo connects with an older man in a gay club. They go home to the john’s apartment, which is well appointed and filled with books. The client is, in fact, a book collector. As he and Léo get to know one another, the older man pulls a book from his shelves, lovingly feels the “grain” of its pages, and asks Léo to read from it. Léo takes the book and also feels the texture of its pages. He appears to want to read but hesitates. It’s an intriguing moment because we are not clear what Léo’s hesitation signals. The viewer is left to wonder if Léo can or cannot read. Would you talk a bit about that moment in the film?
Vidal-Naquet: The scene interests me as well. When it was first written and we see Léo hesitate, the older man says, “What’s going on?” In the earlier drafts, Léo responds, “I can’t read.” My producer, Emmanuel Giraud, who is an excellent script reader, patiently read and reread the seventy-two versions of the script. He thought it better not to say, “I can’t read.” Instead, Emmanuel suggested that Léo state “I’m not a good reader.” The impact from the claim is different than if you say “I can’t read.” To say “I can’t read” creates pity around the character and offers a social dimension that Sauvage is not attempting. You know, if the audience thinks, “Oh, he didn’t have access to school,” a very different response is elicited than if the character says, “I’m not a good reader.”
In fact, Léo may not be a “good reader,” but he’s a good worker. He works to satisfy his clients’ demands, and that’s much more interesting. He’s an excellent worker who is not perhaps good with words. He’s good with his body. The whole film revolves around this. He’s an excellent body worker, which, in our society, is not always appreciated. We place so much value on language, the intellectual, as if this is all that matters. We have less and less contact with others, particularly as our world becomes more and more virtual. We forget what contact means between bodies, how precious it can be. I think this is what the scene is about. You can be brilliant without being a good reader, or having vast amounts of literary knowledge.
Cineaste: As a good worker, perhaps Léo’s body may be viewed as a body that writes. Choreography, after all, is writing with the body, just as Jacques Girault’s cinematography in Sauvage is a form of writing with the camera. Writing—choreographing, cinematography—is work, isn’t it? You’ve pointed this out in terms of your own work with the bodies in the film where you put them through choreographic paces to prepare for the film.
Vidal-Naquet: Yeah. You’re right. But it’s important to underline that in whatever way you frame it, Léo is an excellent worker. It was important for me to show that Léo is an excellent body worker. I met a lot of these boys hustling in the streets, and I discovered how strong, how brave, and how courageous they were. But it’s a job. Like them, Léo’s a good worker.
Cineaste: Besides the work with the cinematographer to choreograph the bodies in the film, you also paid a lot attention to lighting the characters’ skin. Why was the skin so important for you when thinking about the film’s concept cinematically?
Vidal-Naquet: Sauvage is a film about the body and, especially, hands. For me, and this is linked to the idea of work, hands tell us a lot in a movie. Hands are central to the film because Léo touches others with his hands, while others touch him with theirs. Léo’s hands grip at life while at the same time they may very well destroy his life. We hoped that the emphasis placed on hands would be subtle. But because hands “speak” so much in Sauvage, we needed to discover a way for the skin and the body to reveal itself as the main material. We had to work a good deal on this because two things needed to be avoided when filming. The first was to avoid eroticism. The sex scenes are not erotic sequences. What we see is work.
The second thing we hoped to avoid, again, is pity. This was crucial because our intention in creating these scenes was to avoid passing judgment on this activity. When I’ve made this comment in public, I am often told, “One cannot make a film without passing judgment.” But I’m talking about moral judgment. It’s not my wish to state, “Oh, poor guys, they’re doing this,” but I also don’t want to say, “Oh god, they’re great!” I don’t want to be involved in this way. I take the shot. I’m just here to show it to you, with no judgment, but with distance and respect.
When attempting this, one discovers that the way skin is lit is a moral act. Light is moral. We tried to make these workers look, I would say, like workers, and to avoid eroticizing that. We hoped to show work in all its crudeness and difficulties.
Cineaste: At the same time, and though the film does not take eroticism as its focus, the laborers’ hands facilitate intimacy. It’s because of the hands that we encounter affection with all the workers in the film—hustlers, doctors, retirees, and so on. They hug and touch in a range of ways.
Vidal-Naquet: Yes, but we tried to film all the scenes the same way. No, to be more accurate: we wanted to film the sex scenes to be no different than the others. The lightning doesn’t change from scene-to-scene because it’s all part his everyday life, which is work.
Cineaste: Given the detailed approach to lighting in Sauvage, was the film storyboarded in advance?
Vidal-Naquet: The film was really planned in advance. It involved very, very long sessions of work with the DP and the AD. We worked at length on the shots. For this kind of movie, where you want it to look strong, “authentic,” or “natural,” it is absolutely necessary to prepare. To arrive unprepared on a set is a big mistake. And it’s precisely because I wanted things to look “natural” that the film took hours and hours, weeks and weeks, and months in advance to prepare.
Everybody knew exactly what they had to do on set and off. All of the actors had their script, and they had to rehearse it and respect the commas, the full stops, everything. Nothing was improvised. If the actors wanted to make something up or change a line or a gesture, they had to talk with me first. In fact, actors did give me ideas and, if I found that it worked, I wrote something new.
I work from the theoretical premise, however, that actors are not screenwriters. Otherwise, they would be screenwriters. Acting and directing are two different jobs. For the making of my films, actors are not the writers and I am not the actor.
Cineaste: Yet, given its documentary style, the film is often read as “improvised.”
Vidal-Naquet: Indeed. Many people have asked, “Is Sauvage improvised?” Nothing in the film was improvised. I’m emphasizing this because I find it so moving when I am asked this. It happens all the time. For example, at the recent projection at Lincoln Center, a man told me and Félix during the Q&A that he was very moved. His experience was so moving that he indeed moved both of us on the stage. His voice was trembling when he asked Félix, “When you hugged the doctor like this, was it natural? It was so real.” Félix kindly responded, “It’s a fiction.” I mean, it’s a huge compliment this man gave us because he thought that I was filming reality. But Félix is right. The film is a fiction. It is a movie.
To be honest, I don’t understand this sort of response on the part of the spectator. I worked very hard with the actors and cinematographer on that scene. It’s surprising to me that someone can think that the director is not present on set, and that I’m not responsible for it. In fact, the scene with the female doctor’s hug is one that I wrote at least ten times, just to calculate the moment when he hugs her. There are hundreds of possibilities for a scene like this. But as a director you have to find the right position to create the “feeling” of the film. For this sequence, we had fourteen takes and shot it on the first day. So, it wasn’t until the fourteenth take that I found the performance believable. After all the rehearsal and preplanning we did for the shot I thought, “Okay, he’s really hugging her. He’s not an actor hugging another actor. He’s that character. He needs her, for the first time.”
Cineaste: How many days of preproduction work was involved with the cast and crew?
Vidal-Naquet: A long time. Two months, I think.
Cineaste: How many days to shoot?
Vidal-Naquet: Thirty days over six weeks.
Cineaste: And how long for postproduction?
Vidal-Naquet: We started postproduction in September , and finished in February .
Cineaste: To bring things to a close, what are you thinking about for the next film?
Vidal-Naquet: I am in the process of finishing a documentary I started before making Sauvage. It’s a film about porteurs, the men—and I say men because only men do this work—who carry the dead.
Vidal-Naquet: Exactly. Pallbearers. But in France they are this and something more. It is their job to transport the dead, every kind of dead person. They carry coffins but they also come to remove a body when somebody kills themself, or when somebody is hit by a car, or hit by a train in the subway. They remove the body, or sometimes just parts of the body, from a death scene. As I see it, it’s a job like the male hustlers in Sauvage.
Vidal-Naquet: The porteurs are part of a category of invisible workers that I want to talk about more. They are the “invisibles.” These jobs exist and we know they exist but we probably could not tell what this person looks like. We don’t know exactly what they do. We know there are people who take care of the dead, who remove the bodies, but we don’t want to know the reality of the work involved. It’s like prostitutes. They are workers but we don’t see them. In our minds, we think, “Yeah, I know, I know,” but we don’t. Their work is a bit embarrassing, basically. Their activities embarrass the citizens. They don’t really want to see it.
Otherwise, I started writing a second feature. I already have the skeleton of the story. I’m developing it with Emmanuel Giraud and Marie Sonne-Jensen, the same producers for Sauvage. So, we are in the process of finding funding.
Cineaste: I imagine that Sauvage should give you a good launch for a new project, in terms of funding. The film is doing well.
Vidal-Naquet: I hope so.
Cineaste: This brings me to my last question. I’m hearing more and more often at film festivals and in private discussion that audiences are losing interest in auteur cinema. This type of filmmaking is not necessarily doing as well, financially, as it once did. The moviegoing experience has changed and audience expectations have changed. What are your thoughts on auteur cinema in the French film industry?
Vidal-Naquet: I have the impression that these concerns are common throughout the whole world. It’s a difficult question. What I can say, and it’s not going to answer the question exactly, but it’s my way of trying to give you an answer. I am very enthusiastic and glad that Sauvage could be produced within the conditions that exist in my country. To be honest, when I wrote the film, I thought I would be shooting it with my iPhone and with my friends. And, if I was lucky, it would be seen in one theater or go directly to video. And that I would have had to make it with my own money! I was amazed to know that it was finally produced—albeit with a low budget—but produced nonetheless with a crew, with real production equipment, and with real actors. We have a distributor. It was created, distributed, and exhibited as a normal film in France. Honestly, I still can’t believe the career of this film. It’s way beyond what we—I—expected.
And so, I don’t know my place in French cinema as an auteur. What I can say from my experience is that there is a place for people in France who want to make daring movies. This pleases me.
Sauvage/Wild is distributed in the United States by Strand Releasing.
David A. Gerstner, Professor of Cinema Studies at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, has published widely on American, French, and Queer Cinemas. His most recent work, co-authored with Julien Nahmiuas, is Cristophe Honoré: A Critical Introduction (Wayne State University Press).
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4