'Savage Nights' isn't nearly so savage as its HIV story suggests

July 01, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Savage Nights," opening today at the Charles, is so notorious that the film itself is stunning in its inability to stun. In fact, what's surprising about it is how unsavage it turns out to be made.

It's the nearly posthumous, thinly fictionalized semi-autobiographical story of Cyril Collard, a bisexual French filmmaker who learned that he was HIV-positive. In a novel, and later this film, he told his own story, suggesting that he had elected to go on having unprotected sex with various partners and anonymous men under the Seine bridges as his disease progressed through the late '80s. He managed to finish this film, starring himself and Romane Bohringer, of "The Accompanist," see it released to great reviews and business, but he died a night or two before it swept the French Oscars.

Yet it's not a particularly angry film -- as were, say, the late Derek Jarmon's, another HIV-positive director who died of AIDS. Moreover, Collard's decision to dramatize his main character -- a film technician named Jean, played by Collard -- and his potentially infectious, even lethal, behavior isn't a savage, nihilistic gauntlet thrown down in the face of propriety, a last rude declaration of selfhood against the prospect of his own doom. Collard is no latter-day Genet or Celine, whose goal is too flaunt his degeneracy before the horrified nose of the bourgeoise. Rather, or at least by his own account (necessarily self-justifying), it's a part of his campaign to deny the disease's hold on him, a form of holistic healing. He wanted to show that if you had AIDS, AIDS wasn't the only thing in your life: you still could love, eat, experience, laugh and so forth.

Whatever, the central artistic dilemma of the film isn't AIDS but vanity. This is very dicey stuff: a filmmaker making a movie about his own life and sexual activity, which turns primarily on his own sexual attractiveness and the love others feel for him. It sounds icky, particularly as it's clear that Collard understands he is attractive.

But what saves the story is his dry matter-of-factness. He accepts his beauty without a lot of self-consciousness; it's just ......TC part of his life, not the central fact of it, and he doesn't demand absurd slavishness. The movie actually feels much less vanity-driven than Kevin Costner's self-important "Wyatt Earp," which places its star so blatantly at the center of everything that there are no edges, and there's no room for the development of other characters, reducing the film's historical content and dramatic structure to stew.

Technically, "Savage Nights" is a far better film than "Wyatt Earp," but the surprise is that its most attractive component is its romantic temperament and its slickness. Collard was an astute dramatist; he understood the laws of movie storytelling, how to build a character, how to effectively portray emotional conflicts while moving a story ahead. If he'd have consulted on "Wyatt Earp," it would have been better, believe me!

The movie follows its hero's questing romantic nature. On the one hand, he has a love affair with a tempestuous 17-year-old girl (Bohringer) while pursuing, in his other universe, a 20-year-old Spanish street punk named Samy (Carlos Lopez); and, at odd hours, he'll satisfy himself with anonymous gropings in the under-bridge darkness. What emerges is hardly a clarion; it's a sad account of a man who died thinking how much better it was to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

"Savage Nights"

Starring Cyril Collard and Romane Bohringer

Directed by Cryil Collard

Released by Grammercy

Unrated

** 1/2

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