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MOVIE REVIEW : Collard's 'Savage Nights': A Story of Denial, Not AIDS

March 04, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Savage Nights," the born-to-be-controversial French film, teaches several lessons, most of them unintentional.

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It shows how a sensation in one culture can turn wearing in another, that a story nominally about AIDS may be about something else entirely and, contrary to what so many movies have indicated, that having a fatal illness does not necessarily ennoble the person involved.

Written, directed by and starring Cyril Collard, "Savage Nights" was, if press reports are to be believed, the biggest phenomenon in France since EuroDisney. Collard, at the time an AIDS patient, based the film on his autobiographical novel, which follows the life of a bisexual Parisian filmmaker after he's been diagnosed as HIV positive.

"Savage Nights" was a major succes d'estime in France, where public discussion of AIDS was previously limited. It was nominated for numerous Cesars, the French Oscars, and won four, including best picture and best new actress for co-star Romane Bohringer. Bohringer's tearful, nationally televised acceptance speech, dedicating her award to Collard, who had died just 72 hours before, was an electric moment for French cinema.

Perhaps no film could stand up to such an advance billing, but "Savage Nights" (Sunset 5 and Goldwyn Pavilion) seems particularly disappointing. Though he clearly touched the nerve of a nation, Collard was not a particularly adept filmmaker. "Savage Nights" is more irritating than insightful and more interesting as a study of what the French go wild about than for anything it has to say about AIDS or the people who have it.

A free spirit introduced shooting film in Morocco in 1986, Jean (Collard) is no sooner back in Paris than he notices a spot on his arm. He is tested for AIDS by a nurse who says, "Nobody lives forever," and when the results come back positive, he has a dream in which a mysterious Arab woman advises him to "let go of your illusion. Learn from your disease."

One of the points of "Savage Nights" seems to be that past this juncture disease is mentioned almost not at all. Rarely does Jean seem to focus on what is happening to him, and though near the finale he has a fit and screams, "I want to live," by that late date the audience is ready to do some screaming of its own.

The adulation of the French nation notwithstanding, Jean is not a very likable human being. A handsome hothead who drives a red Fiat sports car way too fast, Jean is one of those romanticized "live fast, die young, I don't give a damn" kinds of guys rarely glimpsed outside of commercials for up-market cars and fancy perfume.

More than that, Jean is selfish, self-absorbed and self-indulgent, not always in that order, and leads a frantic sex life. "Sometimes I'll do anything just to keep from thinking I'm wasting away," he says in a rare reference to illness, and anything comes to include an affair with the surly Samy (Carlos Lopez), evenings of anonymous group passion under bridges by the Seine, and a heated liaison with Laura (Bohringer).

All of 17 years old though hardly inexperienced, Laura falls in love with Jean with the intensity of a youthful dreamer. In the film's most controversial scene, he agrees to have unprotected sex with her because they both somehow believe that the intensity of their love will ward off the disease.

But as much as Jean cares about Laura, he cares about himself more, and it isn't in him to offer anything resembling commitment. This drives Laura more than a little crazy, and the increasing volatility of their relationship is one of "Savage Night's" more tedious elements.

In theory, it could be argued that Jean's refusal to compromise his hedonistic lifestyle in the face of AIDS is a courageous decision and a welcome relief from the usual portrayals of the helpless victims of disease. But to believe that is to ignore the thrust of Jean's behavior. If he was callously self-involved before he was infected, just being able to maintain that same high level of boorish behavior despite being ill hardly seems worth standing up and applauding.

In fact, more than a study of illness "Savage Nights" feels like a loving portrait of a narcissist by a narcissist, focusing on the way everyone within sight struggles for Jean's favors. Women fight with women, men fight with men, and both sexes fight with each other, all for the dubious joy of possession. Finally, even the dour Samy has had enough. "You're a bunch of masochists. I'm going to bed," he grumbles at one point, which might be the most sensible thing anyone says all night.

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