Perhaps the Cannes film Im most excited about this year is a main competition entry called Sorry Angel, about a gay Parisian love affair. Ill be seeing (and reviewing) that later—but for now, lets look at two other queer films receiving premieres at the festival. The first is the Critics Week selection Sauvage, which could be called The Sorriest Angel.
In this debut feature from French film teacher Camille Vidal-Naquet, actor Félix Maritaud plays Leo (his name is never given in the movie, but press notes referred to him as such), a hustler working the streets of Strasbourg. Crack-addicted and perhaps even more lovesick, the kid is in rough shape. But he maintains a certain sad beauty: Maritaud, lean and leonine, moves with a rangy lope akin to Joseph Gordon-Levitts in the similarly themed Mysterious Skin. As Leo pines after a fellow hustler, Ahd (Eric Bernard), he picks up strange men who treat him tenderly and roughly, Vidal-Naquets camera capturing both the decent and the bad with frank, un-titillated intimacy.
Sauvage is a graphic film, full of sex and anatomy. There were walkouts at my screening during one particularly harrowing scene that finds Leo at what we hope is his lowest. (Alas, its not.) But despite all that sex, Sauvage is too steeped in aching loneliness for it to be a true hot-and-botherer; though Leo is beautiful (and is often told so), his plight is so dire that we pity him, and almost fear him, rather than long for him. That pity and mild revulsion reach beyond the matter of Leos work, too: he has a hacking cough and breathing trouble, and his health agonizingly deteriorates as this downbeat, but not cynical, film unfolds.
A few years ago, the poet Garth Greenwell published a novel called What Belongs to You, about an American teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria, who meets an ailing street kid and forms a tenuous bond with him. The novel was widely praised for its insight and blunt yet elegant prose, but it didnt sit well with me, this detached story of a troubled kid who wanders off at the end while the author glides back into the relative ease of his life. Sauvage is something of a corrective to that, putting the wayward young man at the center. Its not a comforting film by any means, but Vidal-Naquet locates a crucial humanity that Greenwell, in my estimation, failed to—or was perhaps not interesting in finding.
In one heartbreaking scene, Leo lies in bed with an old man as he reminisces about the past. Theyve tried to have sex, but the old man feels too out of practice. So instead, they simply talk and embrace, Leo offering the man what he so craves himself: a sense of peace and comfort in another mans arms. We may not have been in Leos exact situation ourselves, but who among us cant relate to that intense and consuming yearning—to have someone to grab hold of us and to grab onto, to tether ourselves to another body and soul as we drift through the world?
At the end of Sauvage, were left wondering if Leo will ever find that sense of security, or if there is something innately lost about him. In French “sauvage” means wild, and there is certainly a feral and untamable quality to Leo. Here, Vidal-Naquet strikes a smart ambivalence, offering us some reason to hope while also recognizing that not everyone in a situation like Leos can be rescued or struggle out of it on their own. What the film affords Leo—graciously, humanely—is an understanding not often extended to Leo, nor to many people living on similar fringes in the real world. Sauvage is often difficult viewing, and Leo tries our patience and compassion as anyone habitually treating themselves so poorly can. Nevertheless, the film achieves a sort of grace, in moments of sweetness and stillness, when the fullness of Leos being—be it ravaged and weary—is palpable and, finally, undeniable.
We feel perhaps a little more hope for the fledgling couple at the heart of Wanuri KahiusRafiki, a film from Kenya that has been banned in that country for promoting homosexuality. The Kenyan governments attempt to muffle the film has had the opposite effect here in Cannes, making it one of the most anticipated in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. The film about half delivers on that buzz, serving as a fine showcase for two talented young actresses but narratively stalling out as it tells a familiar story.
The films setting is, at least, something new. (Rafiki is the first Kenyan film to debut at Cannes.) Samantha Mugatsia plays Kena, a teenage girl living in a housing estate neighborhood in Nairobi. Kahiu opens her film with a bright blare of song and sight, zeroing in on quotidian details—street food cooking, knives being sharpened, colorful posters papered over walls—and introducing us to Kena as she skateboards with a calm coolness. Mugatsia is instantly magnetic, natural, and affable as she banters with pals and gazes furtively at a pretty girl across the way.
That girl is Ziki, played by Sheila Munyiva. Clad in neon with a tumble of bouncy, yarn-wrapped box braids, Ziki is an expressive counterbalance to Kenas more reserved, butcher presentation. These opposites are drawn toward one another, their guarded flirtation beginning, as it often does, with notes of antagonism. Much of their initial conflict is predicated on the pesky fact that their fathers are rival local politicians, vying against one another in an upcoming election. Which may make the girls attraction to one another that much more tantalizing. In this way, Rafiki sets us up for a Juliet-and-Juliet story, a tale of young lovers torn apart by warring, unsympathetic families.
For the bulk of the film, though, Kahiu takes a gentler tack. As we watch Kena and Ziki fall in love, the film rambles and swirls, following the girls as they dance and kiss and fantasize about the future. Kahiu has said in interviews that as a filmmaker and producer, she wants to infuse cinematic depictions of Africa with some fun and whimsy, which Rafiki certainly does in its most blissful stretches. For much of the film, we simply watch two kids reveling in the first blushes of love, giddy and playful and blind to the world around them.
But, of course, the outside world must insist its way in at some point. When the community catches wind of Kena and Zikis romance, its judgment is swift and harsh. Though no doubt depicting some of the social realities of Kenya, the film starts to feel programmatic as it settles into a hard plot, hitting the same beats as many other movies about queer love in a time of bigotry. I wish that in addressing this necessary aspect of being gay in Kenya, and in many other countries around the world, Kahiu was still able to maintain the first half of the films loose, spellbinding energy. But as it goes, the film grows more rigid and dutiful. It closes on a sweet note of possibility that recaptures some of that early swoon, but it has to plod through a lot of obliging plot developments to get there.
Still, Mugatsia and Munyiva are spirited and engaging throughout. Both are first-time actresses, and have the lively eagerness of novices hungry for more. Mugatsia is measured and thoughtful, giving Kena—whos a top student on her way to nursing school—winningly relatable shadings of curiosity and shyness. Nervous but determined to explore is a quality possessed of many young people figuring out their sexual identity, an endearing intrepidness that Mugatsia renders perfectly. Munyiva is more buoyant and expansive than Mugatsia, and her character could be said to verge perilously close to a term once used to describe a character in Garden State that I dont want to use anymore. But! Munyiva successfully teases out Zikis nuances to create a convincing person, sometimes coy and flippant but ever soulful.
As others have pointed out, that Rafiki has been banned in Kenya is a testament to the necessity of its existence. If the film is uneven—with such an exuberant beginning and disappointingly rote climax—that may simply be because Kahiu wanted to communicate as many truths of her home country as she could. If justice has its way, Kenya will lift its ban on the film, and any future stories these three women want to tell. Im eager to see whatever those films might be.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Cannes Film Festival 2018: The Must-See LooksRichard LawsonRichard Lawson is a columnist for Vanity Fair's Hollywood, reviewing film and television and covering entertainment news and gossip. He lives in New York City.