Théo and Hugo, two young gay men, meet in a Paris club, have sex, and fall in love then and there. On their way home between the hours of 0427 and 0559 Hugo discovers, much to his consternation, that Théo wasn’t using a condom, while Théo discovers much to his consternation that Hugo is HIV-positive. Still, the two elect to spend the rest of the morning together, Hugo rushing Théo to A&E and proceeding to keep him company as he is tested, and as he waits for his results, simply because it’s the decent thing to do, and no-one was there to do it for him when he needed it.
And that’s all that happens. Like its obvious predecessor Cléo from 5 to 7 its “action”, such as it is, rests entirely on a character waiting in real-time to hear the results of a test; however, unlike Cléo from 5 to 7 it ends, poignantly, long before the results of that test are due to be revealed. Word has it that co-writers/co-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau originally envisioned a script unfolding over 28 days – not, one hopes, in real-time – showcasing the development of Théo and Hugo’s relationship, and the unfurling spectre of HIV, in a manner that might not have been similar to Neil Armfield’s excellent Holding the Man. What we get here is something that is much more intense for its small scale; something curiously intimate in spite of its lack of, for instance, bedroom scenes. The choice of timeline for the picture helps; there is no time more intimate than the wee small hours of the morning, and there is simultaneously a familiarity and a strangeness to the glow of dawn on Paris streets, the many closed and few open shops, the emptiness and the feeling that things not usually possible are possible.
All of this is beautifully realised in a film whose sense for the intuitive, the irrational, and the sensual is far greater than its sense of the intellectual. François Nambot (Hugo) and Geoffrey Couët (Théo) are both more-or-less new actors, but Nambot is clearly the more comfortable of the two; this is unfortunate as he is playing the quieter and more straightforward character. Couët’s Théo is an odd soul whose oft-paradoxical personality doesn’t necessarily require an accomplished actor, but certainly requires a sympathetic one, one able to convincingly become him. Of course, an alternate solution to this dilemma would be a rewrite of the script that too often forces moments of unnatural significance between the two as they skip small talk and go straight into matters of sex, love, life, and mysticism. Late on both characters confirm that they weren’t drunk when they met, but it’s easy to suspect that one or both might have been high based on some of the cod-philosophy they exchange. Actually, the film works better when it allows for silence and nothingness than when it makes room for the unnecessary stains of words. The bleak beauty of the parts of Paris we don’t tend to see in film does much more in speaking for itself, and for Théo and Hugo’s precarious situation, than the screenplay ever does.
But all of the painful pleasures Theo and Hugo offers, and even most of its flaws, will be forever lost to anyone who finds, not unreasonably, that they’re unable to get through its first scene, twenty minutes of pounding techno beats and unsimulated gay sex, shot in fashionably garish reds and blues. At first it’s merely an atmospheric mood-setter, its loudness and activity a retroactive contrast to the eerie quiet that will dominate the rest of the picture. When Hugo spies Théo across the room, his naked body naturally lit amidst the neon glare in one of the film’s few departures from realism, provides a moment of unexpected beauty in a seedy setting, and visually calls to mind the only scenes I liked in Under the Skin. When we see both men have left on their shoes and socks for this bout of hard fucking it makes for incongruous comedy. But twenty minutes is a very long time to watch film performers performing any activity, and it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the scene has been cynically planned to generate some sweet, publicity-grabbing controversy. In this respect it resembles the seriously gratuitous Blue is the Warmest Colour. An inherent problem with sex scenes is illustrated: if their purpose is exploitative, then their appeal is already limited to audiences who will enjoy them; homosexual sex, naturally, appeals to homosexual men, who may well find this scene stirring. But we have pornography for that. Generally, the way into a sex scene is to make the audience invested in the characters, and to make the scene advance some sort of emotional arc for them. In my review of the aforementioned Holding the Man I called it “sexy”, and it is, but it’s also tender and sympathetic. Its sex appeal comes from its characters’ believably passionate love for each other, and thus it managed not to feel gratuitous, exploitative, pornographic, or any other similar adjectives, while containing about as much sex as Blue is the Warmest Colour. Similarly you’ll find that many more people like, say, Cool Runnings, than are fans of bobsled. Bobsled fans might well enjoy its bobsled scenes on face value the way martial arts buffs don’t need any backstory to appreciate the displays of skill and prowess in kung-fu flicks, but the rest of us are in it for its characters, its comedy, and its inspirational elements. So devoting twenty minutes of runtime to a sex scene in a ninety-minute picture is setting up a tough challenge no matter what, but opening with one is just setting yourself an impossible task. There’s no way we can care about anonymous sex unless it’s there to titillate us; sex only matters when we know who’s having it, and why. Watching at home I was restless, eating dinner, making a cup of tea, and checking my watch. Had I seen it in the cinema it might well have been cause to knock a couple of points off what is otherwise a pleasantly-realised little picture.
Theo and Hugo is open in UK cinemas now, will you be checking it out? LEt us know in the comment box below!