Since the American director Jonathan Demme treats the subject of AIDS so gingerly in Philadelphia and the French director-writer-star Cyril Collard tackles it head-on in Savage Nights, there’s a temptation to overpraise Collard’s achievement Indeed, there is much to recommend. The film is outspoken, unsentimental, defiantly sexual and cathartically comic Collard, who died of AIDS last March just days before his film won four Cesar awards (the French Oscars), doesn’t coddle his characters or his audience. Savage Nights is relentlessly in your face.
It’s also relentlessly showoffish in ways that betray Collard as a tyro director and, worse, betray the power of his tale. Adapting his autobiographical 1989 novel, Les Nuits Fauves, Collard plays Jean – a bisexual filmmaker and musician who refuses to let his HIV-positive status slow his orgiastic odyssey through Paris, including back-alley sex with multiple partners. Eventually, Jean reaches out to Samy (Carlos Lopez), a young hood he takes in, and Laura (Romane Bohringer), a middle-class 18-year-old who follows him like a puppy. But he takes no precautions when he has sex. When Jean finally tells Laura he has cruelly put her at risk, she breaks down. Bohringer, a stunning new actress, gives the role a blazing intensity.
But it’s Jean who dominates the film, even when Collard leaves his motives frus-tratingly undefined. We’ve endured so much phony Hollywood nobility about disease that Jean’s fuck-you rampage against death comes off as horrifically honest. Collard’s film is a raw cry from the heart. His anger rings true; what does not is the flashy climax in the Moroccan desert where Jean re-embraces life. With Collard joining the AIDS casualty list, a happy ending remains tragically out of reach.