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Sex before marriage used to be a big deal but in the age of readily available smartphone apps and sex clubs, coitus before a conversation has become an au-courant manner to meet new people — especially for younger generations. It is thus something of a surprise that there aren’t more films like Paris 5:59 (Theo & Hugo dans le meme bateau), the story of two cute guys who get to know each other and might even fall in love… after having first copulated for 20 minutes — the movie’s in real time! — in a sex dungeon.
Made without funding from the usual government bodies and broadcasters so it could portray sex as an honest part of the couple’s first contact, this gritty-looking but finally rather gentle drama has nonetheless already presold to territories including France, the U.K. and Germany. No-doubt this has something to do with the reputation of its directors, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, who have been making queer-positive films such as The Adventures of Felix and Cote d’Azur since the late 1990s.
LGBTQ programmers and critics will no-doubt be falling over themselves to try and come up with the right X+Y formula to describe this film — It’s Shortbus meets Weekend! — but for all its possible precedents, it’s still relatively uncommon to see a film in which actual sex acts are an integral part of the storytelling. Placed right up front like a kind of litmus test for the audience, the sex scenes here are explicit but also unambiguously non-salacious or intended to arouse. There are no close-ups of penetration and the entire mise-en-scene has been designed to help suggest something about the emotional as well as physical effects that the lovemaking session has on the two fearless leads.
Before they’ve even opened their mouth to speak, it is thus clear that the frizzy-haired city dweller Theo (Geoffrey Couet) has spotted the darker-haired, provincial but also more experienced Hugo (Francois Nambot) first and has decided he needs to have him. Theo quickly manages to maneuver his way through the sea of wriggling bodies and into Hugo’s field of vision and within reach of his mouth. To underline the special rapport these two twenty-somethings have together physically, the other people in the room are all pushed visually into the darkest corners of the screen while the two youngsters make love in a pool of light in the center in what amounts to the film’s only non-realistically staged sequence.
When they’re dressed and outside exactly twenty minutes later — the time is shown on-screen occasionally; the film starts at “4.27” in the morning and they leave the club at “4.47” — the two still can’t stop touching each other. Though Theo made the first move in the barely lit darkroom, outside, where street lighting offers much less cover, it’s Hugo who’s the more forthright of the two, stating with obvious glee: “I think we actually made love and contributed to world peace!” The transition from a purely physical act to an intimate connection that goes beyond just the boys’ bodies is beautifully and economically sketched in these early scenes.
The flirtatious duo takes a couple of city bikes and are soon on their way together. The film, if it had been a short, could have ended here with them riding off into the sunrise. Instead, it emerges they weren’t safe when they had sex and one of them has an undetectable viral load. Since AIDS and HIV-positive characters have been part of Ducastel and Martineau’s cinema since their earliest feature, Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, they know they need to keep their focus on their characters. So instead of a dry safe-sex ad, their stop at an emergency room is a way to allow Hugo’s more caring and resolute sides to come to the fore, while Theo is angry, worried and dealing with mixed feelings about his new acquaintance.
Unable to leave each other, even if their rapport has become more complex than a simple puppy-love affliction because of the specter of disease, the two go on to explore the northeastern part of Paris that night for the remaining hour, until the clock hits the 5:59 of the English-language title. They hunt for something to eat around the Canal Saint Martin, catch the morning’s first metro at Stalingrad and finally ending up in a tiny studio near Anvers. The film’s sense of place is unerring; this isn’t picture-postcard Paris but a very specific area of the metropolis, which could indeed be explored on foot in under an hour and where the end of one rough neighborhood and the beginning of a more gentrified one are hard to tell apart.
The conversations between what turn out to be a notary clerk and an industrial designer and aspiring humanitarian worker cover a wide range of topics in that semi-superficial and inquisitive way that’s very particular to people almost too eager to get to know each other. Though their continued tete-a-tetes are well-written — a few rather blunt turns-of-phrase notwithstanding —, Nambot is much more at ease with the dialogues than Couet, the latter a more physical actor whose line delivery is occasionally somewhat stiff and self-conscious. Thankfully, non-verbal sparks fly between them throughout, so their rapport is finally a believable one.
Also somewhat awkward is the directors’ attempt to shoehorn in some topical insights on big-city life and French society at large, mainly via exchanges with supporting characters that appear just once. A kebab-seller who turns out to be a Syrian architect (Georges Daaboul) and an old lady who needs to work to supplement her meager pension (Marief Guittier), for example, might be true to life but don’t help reveal much about the central duo and thus feel rather extraneous.
There’s a sense much of the film was shot on the fly in nighttime Paris, with cinematographer Manuel Marmier’s long sequence shots rarely breaking up the free-flowing intimacy between the protagonists. However, the quality of the footage isn’t perfect, with blacks often murky and a distinct lack of light in some scenes, such as when the two stare into each other’s eyes, entirely in the shadows, on the metro. Musical choices all have a suitably nocturnal vibe.
The film’s original moniker, which translates as “Theo & Hugo in the Same Boat,” is a pun on Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, while Theo was named after the titular hero of Varda’s Cleo’s From 5 to 7. Not coincidentally, all three films are about characters roving around the city and play around with time.
Production companies: Ecce Films, Epicentre Films
Cast: Geoffrey Couet, Francois Nambot, Georges Daaboul, Elodie Adler, Jeffry Kaplow, Marief Guittier
Writer-Directors: Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau
Producer: Emmanuel Chaumet
Co-producers: Daniel Chabannes, Corentin Senechal
Director of photography: Manuel Marmier
Production designer: Barnabé d’Hauteville
Editor: Pierre Deschamps
Music: Karelle, Gael Blondet, Pierre Desprat, Victor Praud
Sales: Ecce Films
No rating, 97 minutes
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