What do you want?
For me to tattoo HIV+ on my ass?
Because idiots like you don’t take precaution?
It takes two to screw up. I didn’t have to beg you!
…It’s always our fault.
—Hugo in the film Paris 05:59 Théo & Hugo
Hugo airs his bitter frustration to Théo, both twentysomethings, as they bicycle tenderly, side by side, through the deserted Paris streets in the dark early morning hours. Their romance is jeopardized—or at least halts—when Hugo admits to being positive, though undetectable, having acquired HIV the first time he had sex with another man.
Earlier that morning they met during a sex club orgy, in the film’s opening scene. It runs for eighteen glorious minutes.
Artful and poetic, this award-winning French film is done in real time (Hugo and Théo meet at 4.27 a.m.), and the project was shot in fifteen days under the guerilla-like filmmaking of real-life partners and directors, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau. The film is bracingly honest, posing the question, “I have unprotected sex and my partner is positive, now what do I do?”
Well…Hugo calls the AIDS hotline who advises them to go to an emergency room. Hugo escorts Théo, who is a frantic. The doctors advise Théo to take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), which consists of taking three pills a day for twenty-eight days. Side effects could include nausea and diarrhea.
We learn that French healthcare is not only free, but medical teams are not judgmental. Why can’t we have this in our country? Don’t get me started….
After attending a screening at the Berlin International Film Festival, I meet up with the two Parisian actors, Geoffrey Couët (Théo) and François Nambot (Hugo), who portrayed the young sweethearts, near the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate). It’s a chilly winter’s eve and we’re all bundled up in our seasonal duds, sipping warm beverages in a hotel cafe.
Ruby Comer: I was blown away by your performances! It’s fascinating—and
brilliant—that you two actors chose to have sex with each other before filming. Can you elaborate?
Geoffrey Couët (Théo): Ahahah, how do you know that?! [They eye each other quizzically.] Well, we did not really have sex before the shoot. We discovered each other—body, spirit, and soul. We both really needed to know each other, so that we felt secure and trusted each other on the set.
François Nambot (Hugo): It made things more relaxed on the shoot.
What was it like shooting that orgy scene? How long did it take?
François Nambot: It was tiring because we spent four days in that basement club, where it is dark and hot. But it was also joyful!
Geoffrey Couët: It was funny and physical. We were naked but so were twenty extras. After a while, you just don’t feel naked anymore. It was like choreography without clothes. After those four days we were exhausted, but quite proud! [He swallows a petite size of his warm red wine from a goblet.]
I have one more question about this scene. Okay, I admit it. [I browse briefly out the window and see a flurry of snowflakes.] I always had a secret desire to appear nude in either print or video. I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through you guys. What was the greatest challenge shooting the orgy?
François Nambot: [He raises one thick brow then states with gentle force] Having the scene choreographed, yet maintaining the reality and the naturalness at the same time.
It sounds like rubbing your head, patting your tummy, and then walking all at the same time!
Geoffrey Couët: Yeh, for me it was not about the physicality, but keeping focused on my character’s inner feelings at every moment. In the opening scene I’m kissing other guys, but all the while keeping one eye on Hugo, as I’m very attracted to him. I wanted to keep true to the intensity and credibility of Théo’s emotions.
Is it true that you saw the announcement on Facebook for the audition?
Geoffrey Couët: Yes! I always Google for casting and also check out Facebook casting groups. I send off ten emails a day hoping I get replies. For this film I sent a short video and they called me. I was shooting in south of France when they called for an audition and I was so thrilled. This is my first leading role! [His bluish-grey eyes glint, as he tosses his golden tipped cinnamon colored wavy locks.]
François Nambot: Yes indeed. I was a bit surprised when I saw it, but I thought it was worth a chance.
So what stirred your interest in the story?
François Nambot: Hugo is a character of my age. We live in the same city, almost the same neighborhood. And above all, it’s a love story and seduction, as well. It was a challenge to make this love story happen on screen.
Geoffrey Couët: After reading the script, I was moved. Everything was there: romance, poetry, sex, and political issues. The characters had many levels. Théo was far from me in my personal life, especially his being shy and discreet. I felt that this script was everything an actor would dream about!
Tell me, how did you research your character? [I gulp a bit of my rich oolong tea.]
Geoffrey Couët: I had to understand what was in his mind, its rhythm, and create a whole inner monologue. It was a good opportunity to use what I had learned in acting class: less outside, more inner.
François Nambot: I did more research on the subject of AIDS than on my character. I read books and learned many things, on PrEP especially. I know people who lived through the hard times in the nineties and I sought their advice. They told me how hard and dark those days were, but very full of life. I also watched [AIDS-themed] films, including those by our directors Olivier and Jacques.
Please share a back-story from filming Paris 05:59.
François Nambot: The strongest memory I have is the hospital scene at the end of the shoot. The woman playing the doctor is a real doctor, and most of the dialogue was improvised. She was leading the scene. Geoffrey and I were so moved by her work. [François sips his hot cuppa chocolate.] Yes, we spent three weeks dealing with AIDS and love.
Geoffrey Couët: Hmmm….In the movie, Paris looks empty, but in some places, like Le Metro’s Stalingrad area, it is full of drug addicts and freaky frightening people. It was a challenge to stay focused and play a naive happy lover!
We’re interrupted briefly by Jacques and Olivier, the directors who walk by and greet us. Soon after, a middle-aged German man comes over to compliment the actor’s on their fine performance.
How lovely for you guys. Say, when did you first hear about the epidemic?
François Nambot: I guess it was at school. My parents also explained the disease and how to protect myself.
Geoffrey Couët: I’m not sure, but I think it was at school, probably when I was around twelve years old. It really became concrete the day I took my first HIV test.
From shooting the film, what did you learn about the epidemic?
Geoffrey Couët: I’ve learned many issues about the disease. And since I always protect myself, I will never reject an HIV-positive person who is undetectable. They are actually safer than a person who says, “I tested myself a year ago…I’m safe.”
François Nambot: A lot! I knew general things before the shoot, but now I am more aware of its history. It has never left my mind.
What did you take away from working with each other? Geoffrey?
It was amazing for the two of us. We had just met and we enjoyed the craft of acting together. Sharing is so important between two actors. [He looks over softly at François, as Théo might glance at Hugo.] I love François’ approach to acting: the way he articulates words, his rhythm, and the way he finds pleasure in his delivery. It’s quite elegant and smart.
Geoffrey was a terrific partner. We trusted each other—a lot. He’s a nice person and a generous actor.
What do you think is the message of the film, guys? [They both ease back in their chairs, then gaze at each other with a knowing grin.]
François Nambot: Love can be stronger than anything and appears even in the darkest moments.
Geoffrey Couët: Shit happens, deal with it together. All you need is love….
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].