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The Man and the Myth Behind 'Savage Nights' : Movies: A year after the film swept the Cesars and its creator died of AIDS, the legendary aura around both the story and Cyril Collard grows.

March 11, 1994|PATRICK PACHECO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a scenario, it's hard to beat: a handsome young French filmmaker, stricken with AIDS, struggles to complete an autobiographical movie about his experiences. Upon its release, the movie proves to be a European sensation. Its director dies just three days before the industry honors the movie with four Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscar, including best picture.

While he is being laid to rest, accompanied by more than a thousand mourners, posters of his handsome face are becoming as ubiquitous as those of the Doors' Jim Morrison, the American rock icon who is also buried at Paris' star-studded Pere-Lachaise cemetery. Nothing becomes a legend more, apparently, than a well-timed exit and some poetic parting shots.

In this case, the filmmaker is Cyril Collard, who died of an AIDS-related illness a year ago at 35. His erotically charged swan song is "Savage Nights," his first and last feature-length film, which began its U.S. run recently.

A year after "'Savage Nights" swept the Cesars, the legendary aura around both the film and its maker continues to grow. But, like most legends, the social phenomenon is in danger of obscuring the real person. And, following his death, it has been up to his friends and co-workers to separate the man from the myth.

"Cyril was like a mosaic, made up of many parts," said Romane Bohringer, the 20-year-old actress who was catapulted to prominence in France through her tempestuous role in "'Savage Nights." "He had something very animalistic and violent, but also something very tender and romantic, even child-like. The film contains sex and romanticism and cruelty and passion. It is a mixture of all of this, just like Cyril was. But it would be wrong to confuse Cyril with Jean."

Jean is the charismatic sexual outlaw at the center of "Savage Nights," which the director based on his 1987 autobiographical novel. It's easy to confuse Collard with Jean partly because the filmmaker chose to play the part himself, presumably because at the time he was casting he could not find a French actor willing to take on the role.

Jean, after all, is not only an HIV-infected bisexual; he is also an unapologetic narcissist who in the course of the movie invites and sustains the obsessive love of 18-year-old Laura (Bohringer) and the lust of Samy (Carlos Lopez), a Spanish Adonis who plays rugby and eventually joins a gang of skinheads. When Jean is not with either of them, he is often cruising under the bridges along the Seine, seeking out his "savage nights" of anonymous and rough sex.

Indeed, the dominant image in the melodramatic film is of the hedonistic Jean careening wildly along the streets of Paris behind the wheel of his red sports car, its protagonist unthinking and reckless, never more so than when he has unprotected sex with Laura without telling her he is HIV-infected. No one could possibly accuse this picture of presenting a sanitized picture of life in the time of AIDS.

In fact, such politically incorrect boldness led the French press to christen Collard as "the spiritual child of (Jean) Genet and (Pier Paolo) Pasolini," two gay icons whose work in plays and films, respectively, explored the inextricable fusion of death and eroticism. While the young filmmaker admired both artists, he was as reluctant to accept the compliment as he was to promote the idea that he was, in fact, the character of Jean.

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At the time of the film's release in Paris in fall of 1992, Collard told reporters: "People say, 'He's playing his own character.' In fact, that's not true. Of course, there are things that I have done, people I have loved, but re-creating them, making them felt during the filming, for me, was truly the work of an actor."

Before his death, Collard insisted on placing both his novel and his film in a fictional context, while admitting its "spirit" was autobiographical. He told the press he wasn't looking to sensationalize his experiences; he didn't want the film to be titillating "tourism in the slums or the poetry of the pissoir ." AIDS was a backdrop, not the driving force, of the film and he saw this work, which he expressly set in 1986, as primarily tracing a "moral evolution" at a particular period of his life.

"What happens when AIDS hits you?" he said. "You feel fear, a profound fear. But at the same time, a strange calm comes and takes you in hand. It turns fatality to destiny, in which you can dredge up out of even the filthiest depths, those insights into truth, love and lust that console you for your pain."

Bohringer, in an interview last fall, defended Collard from detractors who charged the movie was, at best, irresponsible in its seeming advocacy of unsafe sex. "Cyril always insisted that he was not making a commercial for the Ministry of Health," she said, "but I think he regarded it responsibly.

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