Some books make you like the characters so much that you close the covers and imagine a happy future life for them together. That rarely happens in the cinema anymore, but “Paris 05:59” is that kind of film. This might surprise some, given that its biggest talking point will be the 18-minute hardcore gay orgy at the start, yet the film, conceived in real time, is above all a story about what happens when that bolt of lightning called love suddenly strikes. Co-helmers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (“Family Tree”) deliver their boldest and best work so far, and while some hetero audiences will unquestionably feel sidelined by the explicit orgy, the loss is theirs.
On a marketing level, the English title doesn’t give anything away and is awkward to say, whereas a direct translation of the French title, referencing Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” would be lost on many. Things kick off at 4.27 a.m. (time is announced graphically, imitating a cell-phone display) in a sex club bathed in red light. In a sea of naked men, Theo (Geoffrey Couet) stands apart, riveted by Hugo (Francois Nambot), who is penetrating an anonymous partner. Theo joins the orgy to be near Hugo; their eyes lock, and the two ditch their buddies to engage in passionate (and graphic) sex.
When spent, they exit together, Theo staring with semi-dazed incredulity at the object of his “coup de foudre.” The streets of Paris are empty and the pair don’t want to part, so they rent bikes and sail along the nighttime boulevards, with Hugo disarmingly chattering about love. Then he realizes that Theo, the active partner, didn’t use a condom when in the throes of desire, and wasn’t aware that Hugo is HIV-positive.
The dazed Theo passes from incredulity to anger as Hugo explains they need to get to a hospital pronto. Calmer tempers prevail in the emergency room (a loudmouth homophobe adds just the right amount of absurdist humor to cut the tension), and Theo is prescribed antiretroviral meds, with regular checkups to ensure he’s not infected. Once outside again, the two young men continue their night out, discovering each other as they eat, talk of Balzac (this is a French movie after all), and confirm that falling in love really can happen in a moment.
There’s something stirringly essential about “Paris 05:59,” partly thanks to the late-night-inspired sensation that Theo and Hugo have the world to themselves, and can make it into whatever they want. There are other characters, including a Syrian kebab vendor (Georges Daaboul) and an older woman on the metro (Marief Guittier), yet their kindnesses reinforce an Oz-like quality of a calmer, quasi-magical world where good things are allowed to happen.
On the subject of good things, it’s sobering to think that, on every level, this film couldn’t have been made 15 years ago or more. First, the lengthy, graphic sex scene could never have appeared outside a porn film (Ducastel and Martineau prove that hardcore can also be essential). But also, the kind of antiretroviral medication prescribed didn’t exist then; nonjudgmental hospital staff were a rarity; kissing openly on the streets, even at nighttime, was fraught with danger. Theo and Hugo’s world isn’t perfect, and their relationship holds no guarantees, but as in Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” there’s something thrilling about watching a gay couple meeting with such honesty and potential for future happiness.
Hugo’s garrulous, childlike sincerity and sense of wonder is marvelously matched by Theo’s open-faced hesitancy in jumping into the unknown, all helped immeasurably by the palpable chemistry between leads Nambot and Couet. Many will likely pigeonhole them as being the actors in the “gay orgy film,” but they, and the movie, deserve far more credit for scope and achievement.
The appearance of real-time shooting, with long takes as the duo bike or run through Paris’ largely deserted streets, give a sense of urgency to their partnership as the two race to make the most of the minutes that pass by so quickly. Novice lenser Manuel Marmier does a beautiful job capturing the mood and the nighttime glow of the City of Light, via gliding traveling shots that never lose sight of the subjects. The music feels fresh and alive.