In Camille Vidal-Naquet’s arresting new film, Sauvage, Eric Bernard plays a male prostitute who draws the affections of fellow hustler Leo (Felix Maritaud).
Ahead of the Sauvage’s UK release (1 March), Eric Bernard joins us for a fascinating in-depth chat about his role in the film.
Q: Camille has said your character, Ahd, developed a lot during the writing of the screenplay. What was your understanding of Ahd and did that understanding evolve during the process of making the film?
A: When Camille contacted me to play Ahd, the role was quite different from the final character that appears in the movie. Indeed, Camille and I had a lot to do to develop what could be understood about Ahd, his story and what makes him stay in this life.
I found it very interesting to make him a repressed homosexual who is unable to live out his feelings for Leo. I did this through little touches as the script did not really highlight it. Camille wanted Ahd to be a kind of rock, sometimes violent and quite psycho-rigid. A kind of authoritarian and fatherly figure.
Then when I saw the first test screening with members of the team, I realised my proposed vision for the character – more human, alive and “in love” – was very present in the film. Camille was delighted!
It’s difficult to take this kind of risk as an actor because more often than not, what you propose is cut from the final movie. Camille is the kind of director who captures the energy on the set and uses it to tell his story. It’s rewarding and smart.
Q: Ahd’s relationship with Leo is a fascinating element of the film. There is love between the two, but both have such different temperaments and aspirations in life. How did you view the relationship between the two?
A: As I told you before, Ahd is a guy who does not assume his feelings at all, especially if they are related to homosexuality.
For Ahd, being a prostitute is just a job. Like a baker getting up in the morning to make bread, Ahd goes to the woods at night to prostitute himself. He has a deep and sincere affection for Leo, who is in love with him. It’s when Leo’s love becomes too insistent and blatant that Ahd reacts with violence. Love between two men is not coded in Ahd’s software.
Moreover, Ahd and Leo are at very different stages in their lives. Leo is very sick and needs treatment. On the other hand, Ahd is more of a “survivor”, a guy who already has a few years of hustling behind him and has only one desire: to leave. He is ready to go anywhere far away from this place where he has already spent too much time on the sidewalk… even if it means leaving to live in Spain with an old sugar daddy!
I really wanted to play with the code of virility. Indeed, I also have this respect for the masculine gender and I always find it very painful to see how virility can be toxic for men. I wanted to play the discomfort that says that when you’re a man, a real man, you do not cry, feel sorry for yourself or have any feelings for another boy. It’s an archaic scheme, that’s all about an intellectual cul de sac!
What is interesting about Ahd’s relationship with Leo is the unspoken. Despite his shell, a lot of love and humanity comes from Ahd…
Q: What was your connection like with Felix? Did you spend time together away from the camera?
A: I first had a very professional relationship with Felix. We saw each other to rehearse and discuss the characters.
You know, shooting a film is a lot like a big love story – only in a focused and intense two-month period! So, we loved, we fought, we adored each other, we cried, and then we finally left. I learnt a lot working with Felix and he will remain an important part of my career.
Q: This was Camille’s first feature film. What was he like to work with?
A: It was tender and benevolent. Camille is a fabulous being because he has this ability to make you play an extremely hard subject with gloomy situations in a kind of good humour and sincerity that reassures you and leads you to outdo yourself.
I think the success of the movie has a lot to do with Camille. The film would not be as good had this subject been in the hands of another director. This is probably due to the love, trust and respect Camille has for his actors. The singularity of this film is due to Camille’s unique personality! I have a lot of love for him and a deep respect for his work.
Q: Sex is obviously important to the story, but nudity (including your own) is presented in an ordinary way. How did you respond to the nudity and the intimate use of your body in ‘Savauge’?
A: Nudity, prostitution and the use of the body as an object of desire is the subject of the film!
When you work on this kind of project, it is obviously a question you ask yourself. But at the same time, it is difficult to pretend you were not informed if you have read the script!
We did not really talk about this during the shooting. It just needed to be done. It was the story of those guys. Now, I cannot tell you that it’s natural to keep your dick out in a hotel room with an actor you do not know and a team of 20 people filming… at best you find that fun, at worst you pray that your mother will never find the DVD of the movie.
Q: Did you do any research or preparation before the role? Whether it be learning more about male prostitution or watching certain films.
A: I saw J’embrasse pas by Techiné, then L’homme blessé, and Les nuits fauve. I also watched Tenue de soirée by Bertrand Blié for the relationship between Depardieu and Michel Blanc.
But I wanted more, something more realistic, so one evening I went to meet these boys at the Bois de Boulogne. There, I came across a young Syrian whom I brought to eat at a nearby restaurant. We discussed things without judgment or any filters. We talked about clients, insecurity, abuses by certain law enforcement officials… I concluded that this is a kind of micro-society that is created at the margin [of society], at the feet of the towers of the business district of La Défense where you are at the same time your own police but also executioner and victim.
I will always remember the sweet look of fear and tenderness that this young guy had. He was 20 years old but already seemed to have had 1000 lives… a bit like those victims of childhood violence. Their innocent faces have nothing to do with what their eyes tell. I think about it very often… it was a raw humanity I met that night and I wanted that for Ahd.
Q: The film has a very interesting and spontaneous visual style. Does it change your approach in any way working with handheld cameras and quick zooms?
A: It is indeed a real and difficult choice by Camille and the director of photography (Jacques Giraud). This was a real benefit for the actor as usually you are asked to become aware of your movements and your precise positions because the plans can be relatively fixed. Doing so allowed a great freedom of movement, more spontaneity and it changed my way of acting. Then a kind of magic operates and the moment of grace so difficult to grasp usually becomes more frequent…
Q: Can you tell us about your background as an actor and what you love about the craft?
A: I have been an actor since I was 16 years old. I worked a lot for theatre, television and cinema.
At the beginning, I enjoyed being entitled to living many different lives as in a video game! But as I get older, I realise the feelings I express the best when I’m playing a character are often based on this part of me that is present in every role. On the other hand, there are roles like Ahd that have nothing to do with me, and that suddenly help me grow.
Q: Do you have any projects beyond ‘Sauvage’ to tell us about?
A: I’ll be shooting in a few days for my next feature film – Woo Min-Ho’s Les hommes de Namsan. It is a Korean blockbuster film shot entirely in English and set in the 1970’s between Seoul, Paris and Washington.
I will then be in the next film by Benoît Masocco, titled Tactile, which will shoot in Paris. I will also be in London much more now… a city I adore and has fabulous creative energy!
Savuage is in UK Cinemas on March 1st 2019
For more info visit – www.sauvage.film