Taken from the spring/summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
Félix Maritaud’s body didn’t always feel like his own. “I began (tattooing) because as a teenager I wasn’t feeling my body as mine,” says the 26-year-old French actor, his brow creasing as he gestures to the stick-and-pokes that cover his body, many visible beneath the faded, sleeveless vest he’s wearing today, on the cold rooftop of a London hotel. “I did them myself. It (felt like) a way to appropriate my body back.”
In Sauvage, Camille Vidal-Naquet’s tender, brutal feature debut, Léo’s body doesn’t belong to him, either. Maritaud is raw and vulnerable as the young gay sex worker, whose body is at the mercy of whoever is willing to pay for it, be it a kind, older gentleman who only wants to be held, a wheelchair-bound client who insists on being kissed on the mouth, or a snobbish, hipster couple who treat him like a slab of meat. Léo’s desires, on the other hand, are his own. Though the film is set in the tough and often dangerous world of sex work, Vidal-Naquet is uninterested in easy moralising, presenting Léo’s guileless desire for human contact as both strength and weakness. “When you watch the movie, it looks like he has no choice, but he is always making choices,” says Maritaud. “We showed that, even in a violent environment, you can find tenderness and love. And that it can exist anywhere if you choose it.” The character’s sense of agency, despite his seeming lack of options, is what makes Sauvage feel radical.
As Maritaud speaks, the sun keeps catching on a pale purple crystal hanging around his neck. “This is my birth... rock? Mineral?” he offers, searching for the right word. “It’s an amethyst – I’m a Sagittarius. Sagittarius and Libra rising. I think my moon is Cancer.” Free-spirited (Sagittarius), partnership-oriented (Libra), soft-hearted (Cancer): all are qualities that also apply to Léo. Maritaud wears the amethyst as an amulet, to ground himself. Or, as he puts it, to “stay human and not feel like I’m a bird or smoke or something” – his natural way of being. I ask him how he pulls himself back to earth. “This is exactly why I did tattoos really early in my life,” he says.
A middle child and an art-school kid, Maritaud grew up as an outsider near the town of Nevers, a place with “no culture”. He describes a dark period between the ages of 15 and 22 when he left home, going off-grid and losing himself to drugs and partying. “Not in a good way,” he clarifies. “I was hiding myself from something. I was lost because I never wanted something in my life, I just lived. I never had any goals, I never had a dream.” In Sauvage, Léo is similarly directionless, roaming the wide, nondescript streets of Strasbourg, no escape route in sight. When a doctor asks him if he’s considered another way of living, his response is bafflement: “Why would I want to change?” Maritaud chose to get clean when he realised what his loved ones were going through as a result of his hedonism. “They were suffering because they (saw me) self-destructing. It was like I had three dragons in my body that were always fighting,” he says, using an otherworldly metaphor to describe his inner world. “There was a love dragon, a destruction dragon, and a light dragon. And now I only have one dragon – a fire dragon, that is warming my heart,” he says, without irony.
Magic, the actor explains, is a part of Maritaud’s bloodline – he had visions as a child, his grandfather was a medium, and tarot cards are a “family tradition”. When I suggest we do a reading, however, his face drops. “I don’t read tarot any more because the last time I did it, it was horrible...” he says gravely. “A lover saw the cards at my place, so I read his and I said, ‘OK, is everything all right with your mother?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, we’re best friends,’ but I saw his mother was dying. I told him, ‘I see something that is really hard,’ and three weeks after that she died. So I’m not doing it any more.”
“To become a character you have to erase your ego, to leave some space for the character to live in your body” – Félix Maritaud
Maritaud studied performance art and movement in the French countryside – “small town, big school” – before moving to Paris, where he worked, like many 20-something artists, in a bar. It was here that a casting director spotted him, showing his picture to the filmmaker Robin Campillo. He would go on to play a small but potent part in 120 BPM, Campillo’s award-winning drama about love and activism during the Aids epidemic of the 1990s. His exuberant, HIV-positive teenage character Max suggests activist group Act Up lead a cheerleader-style chant as part of a pride parade, stealing the scene in pom-poms and a pink skirt. It was his first real experience of acting.
“I didn’t want to do the movie, I just wanted to try because people were asking,” says Maritaud. “My last casting for BPM, I hadn’t slept for four days, I was really high – I’d just been to a rave. I said to the guy in front of me, ‘Oh, you’re doing theatre? That’s so boring!’” He says he didn’t learn how to be an actor doing BPM, but rather how film sets work.
Sauvage, then, might be the actor’s debut proper. Vidal-Naquet, who also wrote the film, tells me about his first impression of Maritaud, remembering that “(there was) no distance between him and the character. He was doing things without judgment, and he was very instinctive about it.” Instead of mapping Léo’s psychology or personal history, the pair discussed the character’s emotional responses in the present moment. “In Sauvage, we don’t know a lot about Léo,” says Maritaud. “We just feel everything he feels.”
“To become a character you have to erase your ego, to leave some space for the character to live in your body,” Maritaud continues. “I think sometimes, I’m not an actor. I feel more like a medium that is able to give emotions to characters, give humanity to characters I don’t actually want to be like. I’m not responsible for it. I’m just here and available, you know what I mean? I don’t want to control them, I don’t want to be the God that decides for them, I just want to be the (place in which) they can live.”
All three of the feature films Maritaud has worked on – BPM, Sauvage and Yann Gonzalez’s upcoming 1970s gay porn world-set Knife + Heart, with Vanessa Paradis – could be described as queer movies, yet he prickles when critics describe them in this way. “I think when you say of a movie that it’s a ‘gay movie’, you’re making it smaller. I don’t want to be thought of as a flag-raiser for a community, because I’m not,” he says, uncomfortable about the responsibility that comes with such a title. “What I’ve learned is that my own (experiences) with sexuality and freedom have been helping people. I receive a lot of messages from young gay people saying, ‘You’ve helped me so much to empower myself,’ and so I can’t just avoid this. My own experience of (coming to know) myself and my sexuality was hard. I felt so lonely.” He says going to art school, taking gender studies classes, and meeting artists helped him feel more empowered about his own sexuality, citing the transgressive films of Canadian artist Bruce LaBruce as a vital turning point. “I saw that you can be a punk and a gay guy at the same time, you can scream and be sensitive... Bruce LaBruce changed the way I’d been feeling about myself.”
“I feel lucky, because I’ve met a lot of different people in my life,” the actor continues. “Artists are the freest people in the world because they try to speak a language that doesn’t exist.” One of the most influential artist friends in Maritaud’s life is iconic gap-toothed French actress Béatrice Dalle, whom he met in a bar. “At first sight I was admiring her, and now she’s my friend. I sat next to her and I said ‘OK, I love you!’” he says, laughing. “It’s as simple as this. Every time she opens her mouth or laughs it’s like she shares light with everybody around, without being conscious of it. She’s so pure. She’s the greatest person I know.”
There is a moment in Sauvage where Léo is rescued by a kind stranger named Claude. He sits on a yellow sofa, dressed in clean clothes, safe from harm’s way, but he’s shifting in his seat, unable to get comfortable in his new environment. In that moment, it becomes clear that the character will not, as many do, take the path of least resistance. “This is a really important scene,” Maritaud insists. “It doesn’t look like it’s important, but it speaks a lot about him. Like, this is not his own comfort, a sofa. To feel free (he needs) to lie down and choose a place to sleep on the ground. You know, we all (think we) are free with papers, phone numbers, ID numbers that describe us, but I think it’s important to show that freedom and love are things that are really personal.”
Grooming Matt Mulhall at Streeters, photography assistant 101 Simon Gray, styling assistant Julie Velut, casting Noah Shelley at Management + Artists
Sauvage is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and On Demand in May