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New Wave AIDS

In the French Savage Nights, HIV provides the catalyst for a fierce, complex love story

Savage Nights dominated last year's Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscars. But it could scarcely be more different from Hollywood's recently honored Philadelphia, despite having the theme of AIDS in common. Philadelphia, for all its technical and sociological virtues, was an aesthetically safe movie. Savage Nights is much more raw and alive. It is the first French film in years to have that old New Wave feeling, the sense that a director has armed himself with film in order to take on life itself. The juxtaposition of Philadelphia and Savage Nights is exhilarating, because for the first time in years American and French films are engaged in an edgy dialogue.

But Savage Nights' timing is only a small part of its zeitgeist claim. More to the point, it is a film about AIDS that was made by an AIDS-infected filmmaker: Cyril Collard wrote it, directed it and played the lead, then died three days before the Cesar presentation.

For a filmmaker to record his own death from AIDS is not unheard of. But it's certainly a headline-grabbing novelty, even if those headlines lead to confusion. Before his death, Collard insisted that his film was not a documentary, and that despite the similarities between himself and his character -- each a filmmaker, musician, writer, bisexual -- Jean was fictional. But that's asking the moviegoer to swallow quite a bit. The results of this oddity of casting are mixed: at times I badly wanted Collard to stop mugging and act, and the innocence and vitality of his face undercut the terrible complexity of his story. But that same good cheer, which often approaches self-satisfaction, also takes the film to another level. Collard looks so healthy, so essentially happy, until the movie's not-so-bitter end, that I had to keep reminding myself that the actor is now dead. I would have sooner believed Tom Hanks' demise.

But Savage Nights is a complicated film on any number of levels. It opens in 1986, with Jean as part of a film crew in Morocco. There's a worrisome amount of mysticism in this scene, including a dream sequence that reveals his illness, so I was happy to return with Jean to Paris and see him go about his daily business of filming, recording, and slipping down to the Seine for some shadowy gropings with anonymous men. After Philadelphia's sexual rectitude, the sex here comes as a relief, even though the scenes are not at all hard-core. With their wordless men feeding on each other in near darkness, these scenes have a curious, largely aesthetic tug.

While filming an audition for a commercial, Jean meets Laura (Romane Bohringer) and the film begins to take off. Knowing the film's background, we expect it to be about AIDS, but suddenly the disease becomes -- like Camille's tuberculosis -- simply an agent through which a deeply felt romance is explored, with shattering complications.

Jean has known for only a little while that he is HIV-positive. And this is 1986, after all -- which, perhaps more so in France than in the U.S., allows him some room for denial. So he can't quite bring himself to admit to Laura, who is only 17, that he is infected. This sounds monstrous, of course. Perhaps Collard does succeed in fictionalizing his character here, as Jean's denial feels more like vulnerability than egotism, and we're protective of him even when he does finally admit his situation to Laura. By now it's her situation as well: they've already had unprotected sex (in what is the most dramatic and realistic bit of cinematic coitus I've seen in a while). Yes, Laura is right when she rages at Jean that he should have warned her, protected her, but while the film doesn't deny his error, neither does it call on us to condemn Jean. We feel pity for both of them. Him for the obvious reasons, including his moral weakness, but especially for Laura, who is the more tragic of the two.

Bohringer makes a powerful debut here. Her Laura is a fierce and heroic lover. She's capable of absorbing her lover's tragic news, then diving in even deeper, plunging after him. If nothing else, Savage Nights plays the romance of death with more passion than any film in years. That is, after all, the job of the French.

But Jean doesn't consider it a blessing that he is loved in spite of his death sentence. He alternates between basking in Laura's passion, engaging in casual (though not particularly risky) sex along the Seine, and exploring a relationship he's begun with Samy (Carlos Lopez), a bisexual man Jean has won away from a woman.

Samy doesn't have Laura's depth -- which is no doubt why Jean, himself a rather shallow character, keeps coming back for more. Samy is out for pure sensation, and when he fears that Jean's infection is making Jean feel things that he can't, Samy responds with an attempt to compete in suffering: he cuts his own body.

It's Laura's reaction to this relationship that gives Savage Nights its greatest wallop. This is no Frencher-than-thou study in sexual cool. She is possessive of her man in a way that only a 17-year-old can be. But Bohringer has such great resonance, and opens herself to the camera so fearlessly, that Laura transcends jealousy. Her rage immerses us in the anguish of human disconnectedness, in the madness and impossibility of deep and honest love.

I'm tempted to call Savage Nights Laura's story -- which means that Collard doesn't completely succeed in telling Jean's story. He has much of it right, as when Jean drives like mad around the city and tries to elevate his denial of AIDS to the level of heroism. But Collard the actor can't take Jean that high. Or low enough, either, that his character's cruelty and eventual suffering can register fully. A colleague wondered what this film would have been like with David Thewlis of Naked in the lead. Sure enough, such a bitter intellect as his would have been welcome here. (To be fair to Collard, he said he only took the lead after other young French actors either declined to play an HIV-infected bisexual or approached the part as outright tragedy. Collard wanted a less gloomy approach.)

Collard the director has greater success here. The editing is nervy, daring us to keep up, and Collard fills the story with grace notes and unexpected humor. Despite some weaknesses in execution, there is a tremendous sense of life behind this film. I still have trouble grasping that its maker is dead.

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