Savage Nights: Cyril Collard’s AIDS Movie

In October 1992, Savage Nights, a film based on the 1989 autobiographical novel Les Nuits Fauves, was released in Paris and caused an immediate sensation that went beyond film circles.

Directed and starring Cyrill Collard, this movie presents an unflinchingly honest and complex portrait of Jean, a reckless bisexual youth. The story follows a few months in the life of Jean, a 30-year old filmmaker and musician, in Paris in the late l980s. Its premise is quite credible: Jean has been diagnosed as HIV-positive, but in a classic case of self-denial, he somehow refuses to let the virus change his lifestyle in any way.

As if to prove to himself that nothing serious has happened, Jean continues to live his life with the same sense of pleasure and abandon as before. Openly bisexual, he seeks anonymous sex with strangers in public parks. At the same time, he is engaged in pursuing relationships with two lovers: Samy (Carlos Lopez), a handsome, if irresponsible young man who’s in constant search for sensation, and Laura (Romane Bohringer), a naive adolescent who falls for him and then demands emotional commitment and monogamy.

The beginning of the film, which revolves around a new screen character, is rather realistic, paying attention to the small, but important, details, that comprise Jean’s way of living. But gradually, particularly in the second hour, the tale assumes the notorious French “specialties” of “menage a trois” and “amour fou” (including madness, of course), which somehow tarnish the authenticity of the story.

Ultimately, the events surrounding the making and release of Savage Nights may be more interesting, or at least more significant, than the film itself. The handsome Collard reportedly cast himself in the lead role, because none of France’s young screen actors was willing to risk their career, that is, to risk identification with bisexuality and HIV. Collard, himself HIV-positive, was one of the first public figures in France to openly acknowledge it.

Moreover, the entire French film community was in mourning in March l983, when Collard died of AIDS, at the age of 35. He died just three days before Savage Nights swept the Cesar Awards (the French Oscar) for Best Film and other awards. It is important to remember that the narrative is set in l986, when the media coverage and public understanding of AIDS in France were far from being satisfactory.

Before his death, Collard made some contradictory statements about his picture. He stated that Savage Nights was not a film about AIDS, but one that uses the lethal virus as a backdrop, akin to the use of tuberculosis in Thomas Mann’s classic novel, The Magic Mountain. At the same time, Collard hoped that through his movie, AIDS would bring to the forefront all the “dysfunctions and aberrations” of our society.

With all my excitement for the originality and novelty of Savage Nights–there have been very few European films about AIDS–I’m hesitant to fully recommend Collard’s work. The acting is uniformly good, especially by Romane Bohringer, who won the French Oscar for best actress and can currently be seen in another French picture, The Accompanyist. But the film is too long (over two hours) and its intensity and extremis are not always well-justified or well-earned.