From its opening flash-forward sequence, it's clear Les Garçons Sauvages is something special. Blond-haired schoolboy Tanguy staggers along a storm-whipped beach at night, photographed in grainy black and white. The grizzled seamen chasing Tanguy eventually catch up to him and set about clawing at his clothes, exposing a single feminine breast. And it's on that image - salty sea dogs mauling at this half-boy, half-girl youth at the inky-black edge of the ocean - that the title emerges, wreathed in floating glitter.
Something special, alright. I'm going to have to spoil the shit out of this movie to review it, but I'm comfortable doing that; even a detailed recap can't quite describe how Les Garçons Sauvages feels.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, Les Garçons Sauvages (The Wild Boys) centres on a group of notoriously delinquent upper-class schoolboys who take their newfound sexual aggression too far. In the middle of a masked, outdoor reading of Macbeth, they attack their teacher, tie her to a horse, and masturbate over her, before she's carried to her death, all as some kind of occult ritual. Despite spinning a lurid fiction about their teacher's supposedly insatiable hunger for adolescent boys, the youths are sentenced to reeducation and repression at the hands of a sea captain as mysterious as he is salty - via methods unexplained. This opening is a whirlwind sequence of teens behaving extraordinarily badly, drawing you in even as it repels, and it'll turn some audiences off entirely. But they'd be missing out on the delights to come.
What follows is an old-fashioned adventure story with a number of transgressive and outright weird twists. The captain puts the five boys in restraints throughout their voyage, allowing them only enough movement to assist with sailing the ship. When the captives rebel, they wind up stranded on the island to which they were being taken: an island lush with vegetation and mystery that beckons them in deeper and deeper. That's when shit gets really odd, as one by one they get trapped and cocooned in the gelatinous goo excreted by the plants - and slowly but surely transformed into women.
Ruling over this magical paradise is Doctor Severine (Let The Corpses Tan's Elina Löwensohn), the formerly-male scientist who discovered the island. Löwensohn gives the film’s standout performance, bold and magnificent, channeling the legions of plucky cinematic naturalists that came before her. She delivers the film's few bits of exposition as if introducing the other characters to a new world - which in a way, she is.
There's a ton of imagery in Les Garçons Sauvages that's hard to forget: the boys howling with grief as their dicks fall off; discovering their new breasts, eventually walking around topless just as boys do; poor Tanguy's half-transformation. As personality and anatomy start to blur, the very concepts of sex and gender become as surreal as the boys’ gittering occult practices. The revelation that the schoolboys were played by women from the beginning comes almost as a shock, and helps to make the underlying thematics all the richer (and the transformations more realistic). What once was a story about punishing bad boys becomes a coming-of-age fable about closed-minded toxic dudes opening their eyes to perspectives outside their own - absolutely not what the opening act would have you suspect.
Director Bertrand Mandico, here making his feature debut, packs his Academy-ratio frame with sumptuous, obsessive detail and beauty. It’s not just the dense art direction and gorgeous black-and-white (and occasionally colour) cinematography; Mandico utilises a number of old-school in-camera tricks to achieve effects you don’t see these days even on a conceptual level. Several locations are depicted using rear-projection, and one sequence even features a character realised using that method, granting them a fluctuating, imposing sense of scale. The combination of grainy stock, high-contrast lighting, and rear-projection backdrops attains a kind of heightened realism, challenging the viewer’s senses to keep up with its non-stop stimuli.
There's also a robust streak of eroticism running through the whole film. The group masturbation scene that sets the events rolling sets forth great geysers of semen, photographed with the gloss of a perfume commercial; the rest of the movie is no less moist. Its jungles are close and clingy, its androgynous characters grimy and sweaty, its magic wrought through sticky slime. It’s the kind of eroticism that would probably make you feel dirty if you really interrogated what you were watching, but it’s achieved with such wide-eyed innocence and tactile texture that you never even think about doing so. It's like a kind-hearted cousin to Walerian Borowczyk's films, or to Singapore Sling: bursting with outrageous sexual imagery, but preoccupied with discovery, not suffering (despite its promise of Clockwork Orangey re-education).
Les Garçons Sauvages is a fucking intoxicating miracle of a film: a weird, erotic coming-of-age fantasy adventure that probes dark, dank regions of the human psyche without getting too uncomfortable to watch. Like an inverted Lord of the Flies, where the students start out as monsters and are reformed by an island’s curious magic, it tells a story that feels new and very much of the present, in a way that feels tangibly like a pleasurable hallucination from a forgotten era. Sure blew me the fuck away.