Paris 05:59: Théo et Hugo (Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau; France, 2016)

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Theo and Hugo: Paris 05.59 is the best gay movies I’ve seen since Giraudie’s Stranger by the Lake and in a line of films like those of Giraudie’s or Travis Matthews’ I Want Your Love and others that feature explicit sex as part of the narrative whilst keeping the focus on feeling. The first fifteen minutes are a tour de force of filmmaking with one of the most fabulous romantic meet cutes in the history of cinema, one which Lubitsch would have been proud of even though it’s the anti-thesis of his filmmaking (see clip below).

For the first fifteen minutes we’re at a sex club, we follow a young man we will later find out is called Theo (Geoffrey Coüet) down to the basement, see him look around, and his eyes fix, temporarily, on another, who will turn out to be Hugo (François Nambot). They begin to reject or play with whoever is nearest in the middle of an orgy. Theo keeps glancing at Hugo having sex with other people but Hugo seems unaware. Theo gets in closer and closer proximity to Hugo and at a certain moment, whilst they’re fucking other people, their eyes lock, thrill at each other, they begin to kiss, and then proceed to have sex with each other in a way that that is transformative for both. “Your eyes are closed” Theo says. “It helps me to see you, to be with you,” Hugo responds.

After they orgasm, they wait for each other outside the club, start to go home together through the neon-lit streets of northeast Paris which, even for Paris, and even as it eschews all the landmarks,  has rarely looked so romantic, and that’s really saying something.  Hugo is in a kind of sexual ecstacy: ‘I love your dick. I think your dick is beautiful. Your dick is perfect to the touch. I think you can fall in love with a guy’s dick. ….I mean it was like we were producing love…we *made* love, see what I mean?’

As they near home however Theo discloses that the reason it might be so special is that he barebacked Hugo, by accident but without his consent. Hugo however is positive, became so in the provinces where he’s originally from and on his first time. What to reveal, when to reveal, the clash between reason and feeling: all beautifully dramatised. And also very cleverly done. The film would have been an entirely different story had it been the other way around.

Directors Ducastel and Martineau are tactful, honest and complex in their representation of desire and romance in a pandemic. And they’ve now got vast experience dramatising and representing it, dating as far back as Jeanne and the Perfect Guy from 1998, an AIDS musical no less.  Reviewing their Drôle de Félix for Sight and Sound in 2001, I described the film as  ‘one of the first films with an HIV+ protagonist who is offered the expectation of a future, however delimited….the final clinch between the lovers isn’t a deathbed scene but the beginning of an idyllic holiday. It would be wrong, though, to label Drôle de Félix simply as an HIV+ romance. Like so much else in this film, the issue is introduced seemingly sideways and by stealth. Initially Felix’s positive status seems no more or less defining than his being from Dieppe or unemployed or gay or fatherless or half-Arab….Yet the fact Félix is HIV+ is a major element driving the events of the film’.

Paris 05:59 Théo and Hugo shows similar tact and complexity. After an initial conflict, the protagonistsend up at the hospital together to get emergency treatment, and as they walk and talk through the Northeast of Paris, by the Canal St. Martin, they begin to know each other better and really fall in love. Few external characters intrude on this reverie of discovery of the self, the other, and of feelings they’re sure of but can’t explain: there’ s a nice and helpful doctor at the hospital, a homophobic elderly man at the A&E, a Syrian refugee at the kebab shop who tells them how lucky they are not to grow up in a war-torn country. They take the first train at Stalingrad Station where they meet an elderly lady who lacks a sufficient pension and is forced to clean, though feeling happy and lucky with it. She blames falling in love too easily for her present predicament. These encounters with others as they come to consciousness of their feelings for each other are, as Daniel Chan has mentioned to me, reminiscent of Minnelli’s The Clock.

They finally arrive at Anvers where Theo has a room. The film ends at 05.59 on a note of possibility. They both acknowledged they’ve fallen in love. Whether it will lasts or how long it will last they don’t know. But the film ends on them both undertaking that adventure.

In Théo and Hugo we see that original orgasmic moment of jouissance,  where sex, and rather sordid sex at that, has produced love. They’ve made love. They also learned they might have instigated disease, illness and death. Yet by the end, they’ve really fallen in love, and taken another risk, that of trying out a future together in spite of death and with an acknowledgment of it. Hugo says he’s told to live with the virus that might be undetectable but is always there but that he always feels he’s living against it instead of with it. The end might be a dialectical turn in which with Theo, Hugo can now live both with and against it. Love creates a different setting.

The film is told in real time. The film starts at 4.47 and ends at 5.59 just on the cusp of 6:00. The obvious comparison are Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and the Before Sunset films. Some have also pointed to  the film’s original title (Theo and Hugo in The Same Boat) as a nod to Jacques Rivette. Bélen Vidal also tells me  that Ducastel and Martineau were present for a Q&A at the Flare screening in London, and confirmed that the structure of Cléo de 5 à 7 was their main template.

In a great article on the film in Out, Armond White writes, ‘That pathetic teenage hand-job that haunts the hero of Moonlight all his life is exposed for the sentimental claptrap it is by the sexually frank Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo.’ I haven’t wanted to write on Moonlight because I agree with White but wanted others to see the film. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an almost great film. I accent the almost because I couldn’t believe that you could grow up in one of the most dangerous areas of Miami, look like Trevante Rhodes does, grow up to be a drug dealer and yet be so traumatised by an adolescent fumble in the dark that you never have sex again for the duration of the film and into your twenties. I thought the film was catering to what it perceived to be the worst of  its audience, its homophobia, and by catering to that instead of a gay audience, the majority of whom would have trouble recognising such a scenario, flirting with homophobia itself. But it’s also useful to temper with this criticism with the acknowledgment that Moonlight is about so much more than a character discovering his sexuality or falling in love: it’s a whole moving and intelligent commentary on poverty and race in America..

In a wonderful article entitled ‘In Praise of Soft Cock’ for Cléo, Sophie Mayer writes of how the film ‘traces a shift from an anonymous exchange of hard cock that fits seamlessly into capitalist consumption and disposable labour to a resistant formation of softness, in which the couple is reframed as precarious, provisional, interdependent and marginal….’ She notes the last image of cock we see is Theo’s — semi-tumescent but soft and not erect —  as Hugo says, in a series of phrases that echo but importantly change the initial conversation outside the sex club: ‘I like your dick. It’s really beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it, but I like it. I like looking at it. I like taking it in my hand. I like kissing it. Your balls are beautiful, too. Here, in my hand, they’re delicate. Yet they have weight. I kiss them. They’re soft. So soft.’ Mayer astutely notes: ‘While early reviews drew attention to the unprecedented sex acts of the opening minutes, it is in the closing minutes that the film enters truly new territory, of a tenderness that is also explicitly erotic and embodied, rooted in Théo and Hugo’s discovery of each other as “fellow-creatures” who have complex bodily histories’.

A friend praised Theo and Hugo for being ‘so true to life’. By that I take him to mean that it’s frank about the thrills, physical and emotional, of sex but doesn’t reduce everything to sex, that it deals intelligently with the dangers around sex for gay men at the moment,  even with the availability of the triple combination therapy the film discusses so intelligently, and dramatises them convincingly;  that in spite of all the sexual explicitness, a desire for sex so powerful in young people and the easy availability of sex for young gay men, all of which the film treats intelligently and valorises, the film also dramatises, romantically, a desire for love. In spite of the explicitness, sex  here, as rapturously exciting as it is shown to be, is also only what sparks something deeper and more meaningful. It’s a great film and stake a claim for Ducastel and Martineau becoming our best chroniclers of love in a pandemic.

José Arroyo

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