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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Theo And Hugo ****

Starring: Geoffrey Couët, François Nambot

Director: Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau

From Theo And Hugo’s opening scenes, you’d be forgiven for deciding that you’re watching some kind of heavily erotic thriller. But despite the lengthy opening of real sex in a Parisian sauna, this is actually a very twenty-first century love story, with more akin to Before Sunrise than Basic Instinct.

When Theo and Hugo spot each other in the sauna, they engage in the most intimate encounter in the most public of spaces, but as they leave together, excited and enthralled by the emotional connection they feel they have made, they are soon halted in their tracks. Hugo is HIV+ and unbeknown to him, Theo didn’t use a condom. After a panicked phone call to the AIDS helpline, the two separate, angered by their situation and the potential ramifications. But as the night goes on, both find that they cannot keep away from each other.

The low-lit opening sequence, where we glimpse faces and body parts throbbing in the gloom, accompanied by a repetitive and unremittingly sexy dance track, sets up the raw and unbridled chemistry that drives this film. Occurring in real-time, these ninety minutes explore the intensity of new love, with multiple obstacles hurled in their path from the moment they step out into the harsh lamplight of Paris in the hours before dawn. Like Before Sunrise, the couple find themselves wrestling with circumstance, trying to balance the ideology of their connection and the practicalities of their situation. And with the knowledge that their parting could be as fleeting as their meeting, neither is prepared to let the other go. It is both touching and frustrating in equal part, as we root for them to just throw caution to the wind. But of course that is also their problem; they threw caution to the wind already.

This is a film that explores the modern realities of HIV. No longer treating it like an invisible monster, or exploiting it as a mechanism for empathy, Theo And Hugo instead depicts it as a manageable situation, with treatment and control that shows it for what it is today. Hugo is HIV+, but this does not define him. And the scare of their encounter is not the be-all and end-all that it would previously have been. Instead, HIV is the mouse in the room, not the elephant. It is present, acknowledged, its danger assessed and its impact prioritised alongside everything else. HIV is no longer the most important thing – their love is instead.

Couët and Nambot have definite chemistry which, together with its structure, is the reason why the film is being called the “French Weekend”. But unlike its British counterpart, Theo And Hugo is bogged down by a script that is trying to do too much. Instead of just focusing on their story, the screenplay also attempts to populate this before-dawn world with other figures, in a series of encounters that are seemingly intended to challenge some of our western views… but instead, these moments do little more than distract from the main characters and their story, which were perfectly engaging enough without anyone else getting in the way. As interesting as the stories of the old woman who is forced to supplement her pension and the educated Syrian who now serves kebabs all night are, they do nothing to advance what the title says; Theo, Hugo and only them.

Where Before Sunrise was also a love letter to Vienna, Theo And Hugo does not quite show Paris in the same light. For a city that isn’t difficult to romanticise, this is a rather utilitarian depiction of romance in the most romantic city on Earth. The film’s directors are clearly going to some effort to underline the normalcy of its protagonists in an effort to unsensationalise its risqué opening, which is successful in the most part. The portrayal of the sauna is doubtless intended to be almost fantastical, with its ethereal lighting and dreamlike editing, so when they emerge into reality, the contrast is stark and disarming. They say that a city is only romantic for those who visit it, so the Paris we see instead is the Paris of its residents. Realistic, pragmatic and logical – the exact opposite of the feelings they are both experiencing.

Despite its flaws, however, Theo And Hugo is a compelling film about romance and LGBT issues. Though not on the same level as Weekend, it does much to both challenge and reflect the romantic genre. It is definitely worth your time… as long as you don’t mind a LOT of nudity.

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