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Few movies pack as much potential for stirring up controversy as Cyril Collard's Savage Nights. At heart it's a traditional love story. But what sets Savage Nights (originally titled Les nuits fauves) apart is its topicality. Consider: Collard adapted the film (in French with English subtitles) from his autobiographical novel of the same name. Jean, the protagonist, is a bisexual, HIV-positive man in his early 30s who refuses to let the virus slow him down. He drives fast, parties constantly, and courts anonymous sex with strangers in a gay zone under a freeway while at the same time striking up relationships with Samy, a rough-hewn young rugby player in constant search of new sensations, and Laura, a love-struck seventeen-year-old. While Jean experiences little difficulty letting Laura in on his fondness for men, he fails to inform her of his HIV status before they make love -- sans condom. Once he does come clean, so to speak, she is so smitten that she recklessly decides to continue having unprotected sex with him. Eventually Samy, too, proposes unsafe sex.
Jean's bouts with his conscience, combined with the fireworks inherent in the boy-boy-girl triangle, would have made the film an interesting conversation piece in and of themselves. But in March 1993, at the age of 35, Collard succumbed to AIDS. Six months prior to his death, the film was released in France, where it became a sensation; since that time it has developed a cult following around the world.
It is especially ironic, considering the resonance his HIV-positive status gave the role, that Collard did not originally intend to cast himself as Jean. It was not one of those "this-is-my-story-and-only-I-can-do-justice-to-the-role" deals. Collard auditioned several 30-something French actors. Those who didn't back off because they feared the part of an HIV-positive bisexual was too dangerous for their image tried to play Jean with a tragic solemnity, rather than with the buoyancy and worldly vibrancy that Collard eventually brought to the character.
Commendably, Collard's Jean goes on with his daily life in the face of the disease. He doesn't give in to despair, continuing to eat, drink, laugh, and pursue promiscuous (but safe) sex with vigor. It's not so much denial as the will to make every day count. At one point he even brandishes his contaminated blood as a weapon to stop a racially motivated beating. You don't see many movies these days with an AIDS-against-fascism subplot.
In truth Collard's matter-of-fact approach to the disease renders it almost romantic in a twisted way. AIDS is to Savage Nights what tuberculosis was to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. When Laura decides to remove Jean's condom before making love to him, it's both an affirmation of her love for him -- she wants to share everything, even death -- and a measure of her youthful thirst for absolutes, as if her love might save them both.
Collard, Bohringer, and Lopez are all perfect for their roles. Lopez, in particular, exudes a raw, physical sensuality reminiscent of Tom Berenger's turn in another tale of sex and death, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Unfortunately, the narrative flits about without a solid sense of time or space, and the relationships among the three principals wander into soap-opera territory from time to time. And Collard can't resist the temptation to engage in a little new agey, pseudoexistential preaching.
But cut the guy some slack. It was his first feature film, and it told the story of his life. He wrote it, he directed it, he starred in it, and he even sang in it. Yes, it's self-absorbed and a lot less profound than it wants to be. But it's also vital, raw, and unapologetic. And it's a damn shame that this is the last we'll ever see of Cyril Collard.
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