It's no surprise that Cyril Collard's Savage Nights became an instant cult hit when it was released in France in October 1992. This blunt autobiographical portrait of youthful narcissism and recklessness in the age of sexual peril was the first European film to confront the AIDS epidemic head-on. Not only that, its writer/director/star was himself HIV-positive.
In March 1993, Collard died of AIDS at age 35, just a few days before the film won a slew of French Cesar awards. Tragic for him, but great for the box office.
The film he left behind is a far rougher piece of business than, say, Philadelphia or Longtime Companion, and its stricken protagonist is anything but sympathetic. Despite some intermittent charm and vulnerability, Jean (Collard) is a sneering, selfish punk who mistreats his friends and lovers and who rages and whines and demands his own way. If we need a reminder that saints are not the only people afflicted with dread diseases, here it is.
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Collard's strength lay in his refusal to sugarcoat the realities of a youth culture with a short attention span. Jean's defiant sex life encompasses an adventurous teenage girl named Laura (Romane Bohringer), who takes the fatalist view when Jean tells her he has HIV; a strapping rugby player named Samy, who apparently acquires a taste for neo-Nazism; and whatever cruiser/ desperado Jean encounters at midnight beneath the bridges and viaducts of Paris.
"I am...me!" the tainted hero blurts, without regard for the consequences. Jean's lust for instant gratification extends to driving his little Fiat like a madman, delivering little five-franc lectures on the qualities of rebellion, and making a kind of sacrament out of self-absorption. Here's Jean Genet without benefit of a visit to the library, spewing nihilist slogans and inserting himself in all the wrong places.
However, once you get beyond Collard's sheer rawness (and some film technique lifted from the European masters of the Sixties), you wonder just what contribution Savage Nights will make in the battle against AIDS. In the last reel the fiery Jean undergoes a conversion of sorts in the process of growing up: He comes partly to grips with his plight, and he acknowledges the havoc he's wrought. It's a moving moment, particularly since we know Jean's new knowledge will never get him to adulthood.
But the fact remains that Cyril Collard's only feature film can be taken as an in-your-face endorsement of his hero's misadventures in the demimonde and of youthful fervor untempered by thought. The untimely death of a promising young filmmaker will do nothing to change that.