As a scenario, it's hard to beat: a handsome young French filmmaker, stricken with AIDS, struggles to complete an autobiographical movie about his experiences. Upon its release, the movie proves to be a European sensation. Its director dies just three days before the industry honors the movie with four Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscar, including best picture.
While he is being laid to rest, accompanied by more than a thousand mourners, posters of his handsome face are becoming as ubiquitous as those of the Doors' Jim Morrison, the American rock icon who is also buried at Paris' star-studded Pere-Lachaise cemetery. Nothing becomes a legend more, apparently, than a well-timed exit and some poetic parting shots.
In this case, the filmmaker is Cyril Collard, who died of an AIDS-related illness a year ago at 35. His erotically charged swan song is "Savage Nights," his first and last feature-length film, which began its U.S. run recently.
A year after "'Savage Nights" swept the Cesars, the legendary aura around both the film and its maker continues to grow. But, like most legends, the social phenomenon is in danger of obscuring the real person. And, following his death, it has been up to his friends and co-workers to separate the man from the myth.
"Cyril was like a mosaic, made up of many parts," said Romane Bohringer, the 20-year-old actress who was catapulted to prominence in France through her tempestuous role in "'Savage Nights." "He had something very animalistic and violent, but also something very tender and romantic, even child-like. The film contains sex and romanticism and cruelty and passion. It is a mixture of all of this, just like Cyril was. But it would be wrong to confuse Cyril with Jean."
Jean is the charismatic sexual outlaw at the center of "Savage Nights," which the director based on his 1987 autobiographical novel. It's easy to confuse Collard with Jean partly because the filmmaker chose to play the part himself, presumably because at the time he was casting he could not find a French actor willing to take on the role.
Jean, after all, is not only an HIV-infected bisexual; he is also an unapologetic narcissist who in the course of the movie invites and sustains the obsessive love of 18-year-old Laura (Bohringer) and the lust of Samy (Carlos Lopez), a Spanish Adonis who plays rugby and eventually joins a gang of skinheads. When Jean is not with either of them, he is often cruising under the bridges along the Seine, seeking out his "savage nights" of anonymous and rough sex.
Indeed, the dominant image in the melodramatic film is of the hedonistic Jean careening wildly along the streets of Paris behind the wheel of his red sports car, its protagonist unthinking and reckless, never more so than when he has unprotected sex with Laura without telling her he is HIV-infected. No one could possibly accuse this picture of presenting a sanitized picture of life in the time of AIDS.
In fact, such politically incorrect boldness led the French press to christen Collard as "the spiritual child of (Jean) Genet and (Pier Paolo) Pasolini," two gay icons whose work in plays and films, respectively, explored the inextricable fusion of death and eroticism. While the young filmmaker admired both artists, he was as reluctant to accept the compliment as he was to promote the idea that he was, in fact, the character of Jean.
At the time of the film's release in Paris in fall of 1992, Collard told reporters: "People say, 'He's playing his own character.' In fact, that's not true. Of course, there are things that I have done, people I have loved, but re-creating them, making them felt during the filming, for me, was truly the work of an actor."
Before his death, Collard insisted on placing both his novel and his film in a fictional context, while admitting its "spirit" was autobiographical. He told the press he wasn't looking to sensationalize his experiences; he didn't want the film to be titillating "tourism in the slums or the poetry of the pissoir ." AIDS was a backdrop, not the driving force, of the film and he saw this work, which he expressly set in 1986, as primarily tracing a "moral evolution" at a particular period of his life.
"What happens when AIDS hits you?" he said. "You feel fear, a profound fear. But at the same time, a strange calm comes and takes you in hand. It turns fatality to destiny, in which you can dredge up out of even the filthiest depths, those insights into truth, love and lust that console you for your pain."
Bohringer, in an interview last fall, defended Collard from detractors who charged the movie was, at best, irresponsible in its seeming advocacy of unsafe sex. "Cyril always insisted that he was not making a commercial for the Ministry of Health," she said, "but I think he regarded it responsibly.
"The book was darker," she continued, "but there is more light and purity in the film. It conveys Cyril's passion and love of life. I think what the movie does not say clearly is that Cyril was a very good man. He was very much concerned with spirituality and Christian themes. He was a man going from the darkest shadows of escape into the light of love. This was his journey of self-discovery."
By the time Bohringer met Collard in 1990, that journey had already taken him from a bourgeois Parisian background, during which he studied math and prepared to be an engineer, to an interlude in Puerto Rico where he taught high-sea sailing, to a multifaceted career as a photographer, singer-songwriter, actor and novelist.
Collard had worked as an assistant to directors Rene Allio and Maurice Pialat--the crotchety old man of French cinema who featured Collard in one of his movies, "Nos Amours"--before launching his own career in film. He had made mostly music videos and short subjects, including a television film about renegade graffiti artists, before turning to his second novel, the best-selling "Savage Nights," for inspiration.
"I think it was the desire to finish the film that kept him alive during the last three years," said Richard Bohringer, the well-known French actor who met Collard when his daughter was cast as Laura. "He was so passionate and intense that he glowed--yes, glowed--when he talked about his film. That made him very sexy, very appealing. You could get drunk on his energy."
That same kinetic energy dominated the relationship between Collard and the actress Corinne Blue, who was his lover and live-in mate for the last two years of his life. In the film, Blue plays Laura's mother, who warns her daughter to stay away from the self-destructive and wanton Jean.
But Blue said in a phone interview that by the time she met Collard in 1990, he had outgrown some of the "live fast, die young" fantasies that infect Jean's relationship with the 18-year-old Laura. Blue was 36, Collard was 33 and Blue said that from the beginning Collard was "totally honest" about his seropositive status--and his love of men's bodies.
"It was easier for him to go with men at the beginning," she said, "but he loved women too. He was a little crazy, you know, but the sexuality, the promiscuity was part of his revolt and his quest. He was forever pushing against the limitations, exploring beyond the boundaries. Things were never black or white, fair or unfair, moral or immoral to him. He loved ambiguity and contradictions. Finally, he was able to accept them in himself and used them in his art."
In "Savage Nights," Jean follows his prescription drugs with orgies of cocaine and red wine. But Blue said that when she came into his life, Collard's self-destructive bent had abated to the extent that he had even stopped smoking, joking with regret that he had turned into "the veritable saint" his friend and editor, Francoise Verny, had predicted he would eventually become.
"He was taking his medicine, seeing his doctors, and taking his treatments very seriously," Blue said. "He respected the body. He had anxieties about dying but he talked about them right away and they would lift."
Nonetheless, Collard took a sybaritic delight in good food, good company and good wine. And he loved to laugh.
Lise Beaulieu, who edited "Savage Nights" with him, described him as "a very funny person" who enjoyed clowning around in the editing rooms where they would often work 24-hour days.
"He could be very impatient and demanding sometimes, a perfectionist," she recalled. "But he was also a child. He loved to imitate people and make us laugh. The Cyril that we see smiling in the movie, that is the Cyril I remember."
"He was absolutely without self-pity," said Maria Schneider, who makes a brief appearance in the film as a mysterious Moroccan woman of the desert. "But behind the charm and the vitality, there was a fantastic rage too. He loved flamenco and he liked to say that he had Spanish gypsy blood. I believed him. There was that fiery element to his personality. It is such a shame that we won't have any more films from him."
What the public will have instead is the cult of Collard's personality and the legend surrounding it--a phenomenon Blue said Collard would most certainly have disapproved of. He would have hated the fact that his image was becoming engrained and fossilized in popular culture. "That would be wrong because he was always in motion," she said.
His far more important legacy, Blue said, was the fact that he inspired everyone around him to constructively channel their passions--their anger, their lust, their ambitions--to achieve their goals. For a narcissist whose greatest struggle, both in his personal life and in his film, was to see beyond his own reflection, Collard apparently was able to give to people after all, even to the tragic Laura.
Blue said she met the woman on whom Collard based the character at his funeral and the woman had confessed to her that her life was richer and fuller for having gone through the emotional traumas explored in "Savage Nights."
"Cyril didn't realize it," said Blue, "but he really did have the capacity to love. It was hard for him to accept that. He could never say, 'I love you.' But he showed it through his own brave and personal example. 'Wake up!' he told us. 'Don't hide and lie to yourself. Don't be afraid to explore your potential to the highest level.' That is the gift he gave to us."