Everyone knows a personable pair of paramours like Théo and Hugo — boyfriends rapidly on their way to becoming committed partners. They’re the central figures in Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, a dramatic romance in French with English subtitles that was recently released on DVD, Blu-ray and V.O.D.
The two young gay men – Geoffrey Couët stars as Théo, and François Nambot is Hugo – discover one another amid a wild, explicit, nearly 20-minute scene set in a gay sex club called L’Image. We soon realize that both are, at heart, small-town boys relatively new to the big city.
Hugo is smooth, lean, and swarthy with a boyishly handsome face behind his 5 o’clock shadow. Théo is short and burly, with curly hair and a glowing grin. After their heated assignation, they decide to spend time getting to know one another rather than just guiltily skulking away into the vibrant Parisian night. They kiss, then dress and venture out, side by side.
The audience can practically feel the calm, cool evening air as they rent bikes from a municipal bike-share rack.
“Tonight, it was different with you,” Théo says as they ride along, guilelessly confessing. “Because with you … I made love.”
Ultimately, the pair head to Théo’s modest apartment, which consists of a few cramped rooms six flights up (no elevator) that once served as the maid’s quarters in an old converted manor townhouse. What ensues on the way there takes place in real time over the next hour and a half, in the pre-dawn period of one Sunday morning after their sweat-soaked, pulse-pounding Saturday night. The action begins at 4:27 a.m. and concludes at 5:59 a.m.
“Now it begins,” Hugo exults as the new couple set out into the newly dawning day.
In the tradition of other notable “after-dark” films such as American Graffiti, Night on Earth and Before Sunrise – where over the course of the story, the characters’ lives change significantly – Théo & Hugo will keep you riveted long after the more titillating scenes are done. It’s directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau.
The cinematography by Manuel Marmier interprets Paris after midnight as a secure, modern metropolis without crime or grime, an extraordinary backdrop for a blossoming romantic interlude. Likewise, the inventive lighting design paints the opening scenes at the club in a sultry blue at its outer limits, but dazzling hot red inside the playing field, where the action is. When Théo spies Hugo in the center of the room amid a surreal, near-nightmarish flurry of masculine flesh, they each see the other bathed in a pure white light.
“Because we were telling a real story, we were all focused on that element, so it made filming the sex as natural as we’d imagined it when we conceived the project,” Martineau said. “It’s not just a scene of sexual intercourse. The demands of the story meant that the ‘performance’ of filming actors with erections faded into the background. We had to believe in these two people falling in love and in that passionate surge of desire. The main thing for all of us was the way the characters looked at each other. But this scene did make producing the film more complicated!”
His co-director, Ducastel, says, “We wanted a film about the start of a love story. All our films are about love, but we wanted to go back to the source. … Since we also wanted a gay film about love between two men, it seemed obvious to start with sex, because that’s often how relationships begin among gay men and also because an amorous sexual encounter can soon engender some amount of anxiousness and uncertainty.”
The DVD extras include a short film featuring an interview with a U.S. couple together 20 years, whose long and devoted relationship started under the exact circumstances outlined in the film.
Martineau said, “The start of love is also about taking risks. Love itself is a risk. You may feel something. You decide it’s love, but there is no way to know if it has solid foundations. … That’s a risk you have to take.”
Besides the unflinching way it tells its story, the film is remarkable for another reason, concerning its subplot. Théo admits that this was his initiation into the world of sex clubs – a revelation that startles his new friend, particularly when he learns that Théo failed to use proper protection. This forces Hugo into a potentially earth-shattering confession: He’s HIV-positive. Yet without missing a beat, Hugo calmly takes control of the situation. Reaching for his cell phone, he calls the local AIDS hotline.
“They’ll tell us what to do,” he assures Théo as the operator directs them to a nearby emergency room.
Understandably shaken and angry, Théo swiftly rides off alone to seek medical assistance and to be put on PEP medication (post-exposure prophylaxis) that will help virtually nullify any risk of infection. Before long, however, he’s heartened to find that Hugo has shown up again to walk him through the process.
“You were so stressed out, I forgot to tell you — tell the intern I’m in treatment,” he stammers upon arrival, clumsily trying to account for his sudden reappearance. “I consult regularly, and my viral load is undetectable now.”
Then he owns up: “OK, I admit it! I thought I should come to be with you now so you have someone to talk to. … I’d like to stay.”
The filmmakers do audiences a great service when they demonstrate the steps we all should know to minimize the risks of HIV transmission. What’s more, although the French medical system depicted in the film is far more streamlined than what’s in place for us in the United States, the message is the same: If you are possibly infected with HIV, don’t panic. Just seek help. Unlike in previous decades, there is help to be had, and it’s effective if you attend to it without delay.
In an era when most LGBT filmmakers scarcely want to even admit that AIDS and HIV steadfastly remain within our communities, this film acknowledges their continued existence.
“HIV is an unavoidable part of hooking up for gay men,” said David Stuart, an internationally known HIV prevention expert. He manages the Chemsex support services at 56 Dean Street, a sexual health clinic in central London.
“Whether we like it or not – whether it’s a conscious discussion, whether it’s a latent fear, or an awkward disease-shaped ‘elephant’ in the room – HIV has been with us in our bedrooms, in our cruising areas, and in our saunas. At some point in our history, an innocent but passionate hook-up became something that might include a mutual trip to an Accident and Emergency Department for a little post-exposure prophylaxis as a nightcap. Yet I don’t see a lot of ‘PEP visits’ happening as a part of any gay love story that Hollywood gives me. Bless the French then, for this gritty and honest, but fully fledged, gay love story that goes straight from the anonymous sex club to the PEP clinic, without blinking. That’s a kind of love story that I can identify with!”
In the movie, once Théo has taken his first dose of anti-HIV meds at the hospital, things ease between the two men and they get on with the excitement of learning more about one another.
Realizing the strength of their fast-developing bond, they press onward, grabbing a brief bite at a 24-hour Syrian kebab joint before catching the earliest metro train of the morning. On board, they talk about topics like classic French authors, until eventually Théo dares to ask what it feels like to be HIV-positive.
“They say, ‘live with it,’” Hugo declares defiantly. “But I can’t! I live against it.”
As Hugo recalls how he came to be infected, we learn that it was largely due to his innocence and related ignorance at the time. He had just turned 18 and gotten his driver’s license, borrowing his mother’s car to head out to the secluded roadside spot where he’d heard men gathered for clandestine liaisons.
“It was pretty lame,” he says dejectedly of the encounter, which was his first time. “A quick fuck — sort of shameful. … No talking, no eye contact. They didn’t even know what a condom is! If you’d tell them you were gay, they’d beat you up.”
Deeply touched, Théo seems almost relieved to admit, “I think I felt safe with you. … I felt good – calm, happy. It seems irrational now, but it made sense then.”
“Yes, it made sense,” Hugo agrees embracing him. “Everything between us makes sense.”
Stuart, of 56 Dean Street, sums up: “I love this film. I love that it goes from fully erect porn, to romantic, hand-holding bike rides through Paris. I love that neither of these guys have a clue what an ‘undetectable viral load’ probably even means. Mostly, I love that this film rescued me from being a total gay love story cynic.”
The film is at turns erotic, touching, enthralling and uplifting. You’ll feel as if you really know these two incipient soulmates and you will certainly be rooting for them by the end.
Paris 05:59 Théo & Hugo won audience awards at film festivals in Berlin and Boston, as well as the Silver Q-Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. Martineau and Ducastel won the Jury Award for best directors of a feature film at Atlanta’s Out On Film festival.
HIV resources in Kansas City
Learn more about PEP and PrEP availability in the metro area from the KC CARE Clinic at http://www.kccareclinic.org/services/prep.
For more interactive information on PrEP/PEP, go to www.theHIMMproject.org. HIMM is an initiative focused on HIV education, prevention, and treatment in the Kansas City area among men who have sex with men, whether they identify as gay, bi, straight, curious, pansexual or something else.
The HIMM Project’s text line, where people can text with PrEP/PEP questions or for mobile HIV testing, is 816-663-9842.
To make an appointment at the KC CARE Clinic, at 3515 Broadway, call 816-753-5144.
The HIMM Project will show Paris 05:59 Théo & Hugo at the Downtown Public Library’s Durwood Film Vault, 14 W. 10th St., Kansas City, Mo., to kick off its Film and Book Club. Space is limited for this free event, so tickets are required. The event’s Facebook page includes a link to reserve tickets: https://www.facebook.com/events/1035735999863444/?ti=as