From acclaimed film-making duo Ducastel & Martineau (Cockles & Muscles, Drôle de Félix, Ma Vie, Born in ‘68) comes the tale of two Parisian men, Theo and Hugo, who visit an underground sex club called The Impact. They meet for the first time and fall in love amidst a cavernous orgy. So, not Casablanca then. But at the same time Theo and Hugo is not a ham-fisted attempt at shocking audiences, rather it is a sumptuous portrait of two dreamers coming face to face with reality. After one of the men is diagnosed as HIV positive, we follow the couple falling in love in the most modern of circumstances.
I’ll start here by referring to the opening titles, which display pure French cinematic style, calling to mind the intensity and colour of films like Enter the Void and Une Femme est Une Femme. Following this we have the film’s opening sequence at The Impact, which is 20 minutes of pure cinema. The directors have stated that they didn’t want the lead couple to meet in a virtual space such as Grindr, but rather they should find each other in a purely physical way. With the first 20 minutes or so involving real sex and a total lack of dialogue, the primal intensity of the sequence is rendered excellently. The rhythmic percussion blaring over the soundtrack coupled with the convulsing bodies on screen makes for an unforgettably visceral opening. The bass levels alone make this one you won’t want to watch with your parents. Unless, or course, family time for you involves watching films like William Friedkin’s Cruising or James Franco’s Interior Leather Bar. The music used in the opening is superb, with a selection of pounding techno that feels authentic and sounds brilliant. It creates an immersive experience, as if walking straight from the cinema lobby and into the darkrooms of Berghain or NYC Downlow. In between the pockets of darkness there are shades of neon red and blue streaking across bodies, creating what appeared to me to represent a flowing, inverted French flag. One that represents the night and celebrates pure, out and proud hedonism.
Following a love at first sight moment and the discovery that one of the men is HIV positive they head to the Hospital. I was particularly struck by how effective the juxtaposition of the dancefloor and the hospital waiting room/doctor’s office was. I was initially dismayed that that the intensity of the opening may fizzle out, but to my surprise there soon came moments of sweetness and warm humour that served as a nourishing palette cleanser. Theo and Hugo banter and bicker with and elderly man, in a world far removed from The Impact but which still feels engaging and real. Soon after there is a moment in which the camera lingers on Theo, Hugo and the doctor as Theo takes his HIV medicine. It is a moment that is awkwardly funny and makes for a refreshingly grounded approach to visualising the effects of HIV without turning the queer leads into villains or victims. This tonal shift is handled deftly and made the first half of the film an absolute joy. However, attempts made later one to re-up the passion of the opening felt somewhat forced. I cringed a little when Theo threated to hit Hugo and when Hugo made seemingly endless declaration of love. Compared to how genuine the passion felt in the wordless opening it was bound to come off a little forced.
While I have previously mentioned some films that came to mind while watching the opening sequence perhaps the two that most resemble the film in term of narrative structure are Victoria and Before Sunrise. With that being said, the structure of the relationship in the latter of those films couldn’t be more different. Unlike Jesse and Celine, Theo and Hugo swap the meet-cute of Linklater’s classic for a meet-fuck, and works backwards from there. The couple, who have already become so intimate with one another seem to be working backwards, getting to know each other after having already shared so much (both literally and metaphorically). So too, in those aforementioned ‘all-nighter flicks’ there is something about the representation of the night in Theo and Hugo that rings true. Each posit that the witching hour allows for more intimate encounters both in real life and in cinema. In Theo and Hugo there are charming encounters with a Syrian kebab shop owner and an elderly chambermaid on the first metro. Perhaps this intimacy feels genuine because at night, while the majority of people sleep, great sprawling cities like Paris become more like villages. Encounters are limited, and so one is drawn more closely into each. Walking around in the dead of night, the pair exist in a state of limbo. Between midnight and midday. Between positive and negative. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes and unfolding in a strict window of real time, the film zips along, like Theo and Hugo themselves, in a state of breathless potentiality.
Hugo, walking along the river with Theo points to a path and states “let’s go to the end”. When dawn broke in the film and the credits began to roll I was ready to go right back to the start.
Dir: Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau
Scr: Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau
Cast: Geoffrey Couët, François Nambot, Mario Fanfani, Bastien Gabriel
Prd: Emmanuel Chaumet
DOP: Manuel Marmier
Music: Gaël Blondet
Run time: 97 min
Theo and Hugo is currently showing in UK cinemas