Bracing AIDS Film Looks at Sex and Death

Dramatic, Passionate, Mad "Savage Nights" Scintillates


Savage Nights

directed by Cyril Collard

starring Cyril Collard, Romaine Bohringer

and Carlos Lopez

at the Brattle Theater

through April 24

Tony Kushner's Pulitzre prize-winning play, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches tells the modern story of death as result of AIDS. Kushner shows his character in their turmoils, their laughs and their delusions. Unlike Kushner's well-paced play, which balance the melancholia, depression and heartache surrounding this deadly disease, French film maker Cyril Collard's "Savage Nights" (or "Les Nuits Fauves") approaches the subject of AIDS in a much more dramatic, passionate, insane way, one which, ultimately, is unable to remain comprehensible.

The film is based on Collard's novel of the same title and tells the story of Jean (played by Collard), a film maker and musician who lives a seedy bisexual life in the subculture of Paris. He meets, falls in love and has great, mind-numbing sex with Laura, played by Romaine Bohringer, an 18-year old whose maturity seems far beyond her years.

After acclimating the audience to these somewhat unusual characters, the believability of the film beings to erode. Laura, after the horror of finding out Jean is HIV-positive, continues to have sex with him, sans condom. Suddenly, what seemed like a mature commitment has turned into naive stupidity.

When taken as naive and youthful stupidity, Laura's actions seems forgivable. But the script does not allow this attitude to endure. Like everything else in the film, Laura's actions are taken to the extreme. When she finds Jean kissing a mutual male friend, Samy (Carlos Lopez), she becomes outraged, screaming at both of them and hitting everything in sight.

However, this is nothing compared to the exaggerated emotion which follows. Collard shows Laura in the mids of a psychological obsession. She calls Jean 24 hours a day, leaving insane message of death, terror and suicide. Finally, Laura is carted off to the insane asylum.

Perhaps we are to assume that Collard believes Jean's quotation at the beginning of the film, "Only violence can put an end to man's ways," because we get to see plenty of violence-domestic, sexual and racial. The film attempts to achieve a fervent pitch of turbulent emotion, but is incapable to sustaining it. The goal here seems to be to achieve the numbing qualities of a "Reservoir Dogs" but ends without delving deeply enough below the emotional skin to make the audience empathize with any of the characters.

From the beginning, we see Jean's careless sexual activities, and as emotionally-charged as AIDS is, one cannot help but believe that on some level he must assume responsibility for the God-complex which leads him to play with the lives of others. Collard shows Jean having sex with random men in abandoned buildings, picking up people on the street and engaging in his fetish, being urinated on. Squeamishness is what Collard is counting on in the viewer, but the eventual emotion evoked is not pathos but repulsion.

Essentially, this movie deals with choices and the inability of the protagonist to make any. He cannot choose between whether he wants to be a film maker or a musician he cannot decide if he wants men, women or even which ones from each of these. Responsibility, trust and some form of commitment are essential elements in any sort of relationship, but Jean is incapable of exercising any of these character traits. His overarching sense of denial seems to pervade all of his actions. And the inconsistency of the film's basic structure-its exaggeration, melodrama and useless subplots-reflects this.

This movie, as much as it is billed as such, is not about sex. In the presence of any human tragedy, the basic human traits, and not the source of the tragedy, make the drama. "Savage Nights" has received so much acclaim, including a host of Cesar Awards (the French Oscars), because it is the first film to confront the harsh, raw, smarmy side living with AIDS. It shows the character without apology, living the melodrama that we are supposed to believe is their lives.

"Savage Nights" does not have the poignancy of Angels in America, but shows more grit than the pre-packaged Academy-Award winning, "Philadelphia." It tells the story of a modern man's life without absolutes, excepting himself. And when one's absolute is visibly disintegrating, mayhem is sure to ensue.