The first sequence of Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo is an epic orgy that recalls the ludic eroticism of James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus. As in that 1971 gay classic, no one speaks throughout this dreamlike ballet, yet everyone seems to know exactly what to do, when to turn, where to lick. The delectable male bodies are only “clothed” by the theatrical red-and-blue lighting as they pant like hungry beasts.
For all its explicitness, the sequence feels closer to magical realism than pornography. Its relentlessness, as there seems to be no end in sight for so much enjoyment, points to a yearning for something far beyond the most readily available orifice. While the English title of the film offers a sense of temporal precision (the original French title translates to Théo and Hugo on the Same Boat), time is completely foreign to the orgy. There is only flesh, fantasy, and the delightful disregard for whatever comes after.
The circularity inherent to cruising is derailed when romantic sparks are kindled in the middle of the orgy. Théo (Geoffrey Couët) and Hugo (François Nambot) look at each other in the eye and suddenly all other bodies in the room are demoted to supporting players—or witnesses to their immediate connection. If the banality of hedonism that the sex club represents belongs to a parallel gay cosmopolitan world where carnal needs shall always be copiously gratified, that world also abides by another type of temporality.
Perhaps it’s one akin to René Clair’s 1924 silent film Paris Qui Dort (literally Paris Which Sleeps), also uncannily translated as an exact timestamp, At 3:25 in the United States. In Clair’s fable of morality and playfulness, a mad doctor uses a magic ray to freeze Paris’s citizens, and the few unaffected roam around and loot the city. In Paris 05:59, Théo and Hugo leave the club and wander through the streets as if numbed by the precious rarity of their encounter. The orgy, that most unabashed exercise in pleasure for pleasure’s sake, has actually produced something that may outlive the sex act. In this case, more than what they may have bargained for, however, as Hugo is HIV-positive and Théo admits to having fucked him without a condom.
Hugo is so worried for Théo’s health that he calls a hospital to get his partner in for a post-exposure prophylaxis treatment that very night. Hugo’s insistence on taking Théo to the emergency room doesn’t feel very plausible, as most gay men, following a hook-up, don’t give this much credence to the idea that a top can be so easily infected by a bottom with an undetectable viral load. But Paris 05:59 is a post-AIDS fairy tale and what matters here is that, as it turns out, barebacking leads to the exchange of much more than just fluids and viruses. On their way to the hospital, Théo and Hugo walk around the city not unlike the characters in Clair’s film, while almost everyone is still asleep, and have the quintessential French-cruising experience: They refuse to rush through things and embrace small pleasures, such as taking the first subway in the morning after a fun-filled night, casually discussing Balzac, enjoying a post-coital Kebab, and simply indulging in the cinematic promise of love.
Very few films accept the contradicting velocities of gay desire, and present them in such blunt yet graceful fashion, the way Paris 05:59 does. Ducastel and Martineau understand the propensity for the sheer revolutions that secluded sex rooms seem to foster (one can fall in and out of love a million times in just a few hours), as well as the brevity of gay bliss—so easily dismantled by a world that conspires against its longevity through disease, invisibility, and the over-abundance of muscled bodies happy to perform.
The film is just as unapologetic about gay men’s sexual needs as it is sensitive to their suffering as the demand that propels cruising turns out to be, like all demands, a demand for love. Théo and Hugo’s desire for love is here not at odds with what some may call the sluttier forms of longing, as they’re one and the same—both equally legitimate, and equally brittle.
Besides being a film about desire and the potential solidarity to arise from erotic scenarios, Paris 05:59 is also about Paris. The city is perfectly set up for the most electrifying orgies to take place but also for dealing with whatever consequences come out of them in the most rational manner. Here, two gay men head to the hospital for post-exposure prophylaxis following an orgy with the same straight face one presents when going in for, say, a broken arm. Paris appears as an anti-Vegas of sorts, where instead of leaving the indignity of sex behind once it’s over, its delights are in fact never over because a commitment to pleasure is bound to produce it even, or especially, in the most unlikely places. The Paris of the film isn’t just the one “we will always have” in some kind of fantastic future, but what we have right now—despite the dread of AIDS or the perverse fleetingness of human relationships. This is Paris as a place for those who aren’t just shame-less about pleasure, but responsible for the pleasures that they give and the ones that they receive.