Bold and beautiful, this real-time French love-story liberally mixes the painterly concision of a Stanley Kubrick film with the perambulatory charm of a Richard Linklater; the resulting film is truly stunning.
Opening with an un-simulated twenty-minute gay orgy in a Parisian sex club, this film certainly isn’t for everyone. Nailing their multi-coloured flag proudly to the mast, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau don’t shy away from celebrating the male form in all its erect splendour. If you go into it with that very British reticence which has long defined our national personality, then you’ll very quickly come bustling out again, red in the face and more than a little bewildered. If you take the more laissez-faire French approach however, you may just, through opening your mind, see the extraordinary beauty of it all.
The opening shot features a mysterious onlooker travelling through the orgy, slyly eyeing up his potential conquests; much like Tom Cruise’s inquisitive impostor from Eyes Wide Shut, albeit a much less naïve version. Indeed the symbolic, almost religious, tableaux that Ducastel and Martineau construct upon Theo and Hugo’s love-making are oddly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s highly meticulous visual style, and in particular the virtuosic compositions of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although a weird comparison to draw considering the context, the former film’s rich, well-defined blue, white and red palette (perhaps a patriotic spelling out of the French flag?) certainly has something in common with the bold primary colours of the latter’s.
The plot is similar to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise: two strangers meet by chance, immediately fall in love, and then spend an entire film walking around a city getting to know one another. From my description that film may sound interminably dull, and if it weren’t for a snappy script that manages to be coolly casual and yet ever-engaging at the same time, it would be. However Linklater – with the help of co-writer Kim Krizan – protracts one evening between two burgeoning lovers into feature film length, and it works gloriously well. As I watched Theo and Hugo I entertained the idea that – as per Before Sunset (the second installment of the trilogy) – Jesse and Céline might be waking up in the very same apartment block not long after Theo and Hugo finally get to bed, and that the latter pair of star-crossed lovers may have even intersected paths with the former during the previous day’s events.
Ducastel and Martineau take a similar tact to Linklater but go one further; Theo and Hugo unfolds in real-time, running from precisely 4:27 to 5:59am. It is neatly punctuated throughout by the occasional on-screen time-check, reminding us of the fleeting nature of the many moments unravelling before us. Time itself becomes a character in the film, ushering along our protagonists from one encounter to the next. A kind-hearted nurse, a cantankerous homophobe, a cheerful kebab vendor, and a contented hotel maid; such are the characters Theo and Hugo meet on their walk. All are played with refreshing honesty, even if their dialogue does at times feel slightly staged, but none more so than the eponymous duo themselves. Their astonishing ability to form such an intimate relationship on screen, to the extent of actually making love on-camera (much like the lesbian lovers of Blue is the Warmest Colour), is breathtaking in its emotional rawness and technical scope. I can’t help but wonder whether the actors – like the lovers they portray – stayed together after the film ended, or whether they grew apart. But perhaps it’s better that we don’t know, so that the magic of their brief encounter may live on in our minds – immortal in its never-fading majesty – just as the permanent celluloid images that so delicately captured it forever will.
Theo and Hugo (2016), directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, is distributed by Peccadillo Pictures, certificate 18.