❉ Nick Campbell praises a strikingly modern nocturnal romance. But does he believe in love at first sight?
“Desire is stupid. But it’s good to want you the way I do.”
This unmissable new release from Peccadillo Pictures is by turns exciting, romantic and thought-provoking. The story of two young men whose eyes meet across a crowded sex club, and of their subsequent adventures before dawn, might almost have a little of ‘Brief Encounter’ buried somewhere in its DNA. That said, however well you get on with your mum, it’s not a movie you should sit down and watch with her this weekend.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever fallen for a stranger, about whom you know nothing yet somehow everything just from the way their hair falls across their eyes, and indulged in that fantasy safe in the knowledge you never have to find out the truth, this is the movie for you. When the two men come together for the first time, soundtracked by the pulsing electronica of composers Karelle and Kuntur, the movie first poses the question: how much or little do you need to know about someone to fall for them?
From the very start, Ducastel and Martineau make no compromises to prudish audience members or their mothers. ‘Theo and Hugo’ has attracted some fame online for its explicit, unsimulated opening scenes, shot in the red hot and blue lights L’Impact’s basement, but in many ways that first sweaty quarter of an hour – though compelling – gets the closest to fantasy of the entire movie. The magic spell of desire lasts longer than usual, as the young men take to deserted, yellow-lit roads of Paris at five in the morning. Then one small slip changes everything, forever.
Having been drawn together by instinct and physical attraction, the two men suddenly find themselves even more deeply linked by matters of the body. The modernity of the movie is not due only to its naked bodies or its sinuous exploration of Paris’ golden, lavender, emerald city, but for its frank and startling yet un-sensationalising presentation of life with HIV.
What happens next unfolds in real time, but with incredible momentum. In a short space of time, the two men experience a shift into a new kind of intimacy that echoes the historical effect of the AIDS crisis on the gay community: united in honesty, discovery, adversity.
What a long way we’ve come. The institutional figures we see are unjudgmental, and there is talk of treatment (particularly a form of the PrEP strategy that could soon be slowing the spread of HIV in the UK) and of living with the virus. The original title of Ducastel and Martineau’s movie (‘Theo et Hugo dans le meme bateau’) invokes Jacques Rivette, but also summarises the movie’s premise with a laconic air typical of their movie’s approach.
Once upon a time, this movie would have been a weepie, and although there are tears in 2016, there is also unsentimental clear-sightedness. “I try to live against it, not with it,” says one character, angrily. This is no romantic comedy, and the two men at its heart argue as hotly as they kiss one another. “I want to kiss you and hit you,” one tells the other. “Hard. Very hard.” It’s a beautifully shot and acted portrait of the conversations and emotions that happen beyond the pale, between night and morning, in the midst of uncertainty.
The Rivette reference should also alert us to the way the movie explores an unseen, seamy, quotidian Paris, showing its beauty with an unconventional perspective. “The night belongs to women and fags,” Theo pronounces, but they also meet a Syrian architecture student managing a kebab shop at five in the morning, and a ranting old man in a hospital waiting room. They get the life story of a woman on the first metro of the morning, and she smiles at them, perhaps wondering about their lives, and where they’re going. We can only wonder too. Will this brief encounter last beyond the closing credits? If not, is it any less real?
Ultimately, this fantastic movie is less about agonising over the past or the future, and more about how we’re going to act right now, this very moment, knowing everything we’ve learnt, knowing absolutely nothing at all.
❉ ‘Theo & Hugo’ was released by Peccadillo Pictures on DVD, Blu-ray and VoD on 16 November 2016. It will be screening at HOME Manchester, 2 December 2016 and Errol Flynn Filmhouse Northampton, 12 December 2016.