Paris 05.59: Théo and Hugo (2016)

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PARIS-0559-1

Image via MIFF

This Melbourne Queer Film Festival screening was my third attempt to see this film; booked at MIFF but sacrificed for tiredness, waiting for half an hour at Cinema Nova yesterday before it was cancelled due to a technical hitch and then rescheduled today. I’m glad I hung in there; it was a beautiful film that pulled me into a world both foreign and familiar. 

What would’ve drawn many people to this film is the knowledge that it begins with an 18-minute gay orgy. During the intro on the previous day, we were promised penises and given permission, if we were prudish, to walk out once the lights dimmed. For the 95% male audience, I suspect this was not a daunting prospect but for this straight girl it was an intriguing challenge.

The red and blue lights and electronic music pull us swiftly into the subterranean murkiness of a gay sex club. Bodies, faces, noises; we are lost in the anonymous undulations of lust until the camera passes a young face, circling back until it is his experience that we watch. He is at the fringes, watching a couple as if he has a hunger that he can’t be distracted from. In a slow dance of skin and breath he couples with a man, never taking his eyes off another until the two of them finally connect. We watch as the desire and intimacy between them builds and then it is just the two of them, lost in the joy and passion of each other.

Satiated, they leave the club together, full of warmth and satisfaction. As they ride off into the empty streets of a Paris night, they start a slow and halting process of getting to know each other. I’m loathe to say exactly what happens next. There is definitely a point to this film and a valuable story to be told. I loved though, being as clueless as our two leads – Théo (Geoffrey Couët) and Hugo (François Nambot) – as in a few short hours, their worlds turn and collide and irrevocably change.

There could have been a temptation for this film to be didactic and, for a brief moment, its importance as education and warning for those of us grown complacent as to our invulnerability in the 21st-century indicates it might head down that path. Fortunately, it steers clear of heavy-handedness and, with a deft touch, immerses us in experience rather than a lecture. The chemistry between Théo and Hugo is striking – not for a moment did I doubt it. The green and gold and blue lights of the empty predawn Parisian streets are exquisite and there are some lyrical scenes with a sense of place so evocative it is like another character.

The original French title translates as ‘Théo and Hugo in the same boat’ which you will understand when you see the film. It seems a better title as it is the collision of these two strangers so that, for a time at least, they walk the same path, that is pivotal to the narrative. Reading some trivia about the film it is also purported to reference the seminal films Celine and Julie Go Boating by Jacques Rivette and Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, which is similarly told in real time.

The great thing about film festivals is is that you are surrounded by people who are there with a purpose. Often it’s a love of film and with the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, it’s also an opportunity to see stories that resonates with your own life in a way that mainstream films do not. By chance I set next to Sami and we struck up a conversation before the lights went down, kindled by the shared experience of the drama of the previous day’s cancelled screening. As the credits rolled at the end of the film, Sami invited me for a coffee so we could swap impressions of the film.

The insight Sami gave me was about the nuances of the connection between the two gay men. The sex club, or sauna, is a seedy world that feeds an addiction for the sating of desire. It is not a place for lofty ideals but can provide moments of intimacy and connection. These may lead to subsequent hook ups but there is not the expectation of a relationship. My straight girl world view assumed that Théo and Hugo’s moment signified something more than a pleasure in each other’s body and mind. This understanding recast the narrative arc for me. Hugo’s understandable optimism for life and Théo’s naive idealism are the two threads and we watch what happens when they intertwine.

Bechdel test – fail
4 stars

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