FILM / One of those nights

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The Independent Culture
Savage Nights (18) Cyril Collard (Fr)

Born Yesterday (PG) Luis Mandoki (US)

The Trial (12) David Jones (UK)

South Central (15) Steve Anderson (US)

Mau-Mau (no cert) Uwe Schrader (Ger)

CYRIL COLLARD's Savage Nights is based on his semi- autobiographical 1989 novel. Collard stars in it as Jean, a charming, feckless man who has just been pronounced HIV positive. The soundtrack includes a sprinkling of original songs (co-written and performed by C Collard). It's a real one-man band, always a risky feature in a first film.

A stark pre-credit announcement makes a strong pitch for audience sympathy - it lists a slew of French awards, including Best Film and Best First Film, which Collard died (aged 35) three days too soon to see. Collard himself, a glamorous pop star / poet / actor / film- maker, has been quasi-canonised in the French media. All very sad, of course, but it shouldn't skew our judgement of his movie.

The good news is that this is rough, raw and passionate; a real first film. The Cesar for editing is well-earned: although the story straggles towards the end, it mostly rushes past nervily, with much hand-held camerawork, hopping from character to character, scene to scene. Unable to make any kind of emotional commitment, Jean dithers between two lovers, one male (Samy, a hunky Spaniard, who drifts into S&M and a far- right racist gang), one female (17-year-old Laura, whose obsessive love for Jean sours into a nervous breakdown) - Romaine Bohringer is fierce and heart-rending in this role. Laura loves the twilight, that time of day which the French call 'between wolf and dog', and the film convincingly captures life in an unreal twilight zone. Jean's living in limbo, HIV positive but without full- blown Aids (everyone believes he has a charmed life and will never yield to the virus). He's even unable to make up his mind about his own sexuality.

The more dubious news is that Savage Nights is infuriatingly narcissistic - what a shame that Collard was unable to recruit, as he claimed he tried to do, another actor for the central role. Jean behaves reprehensibly - he makes love to Laura without warning her of his condition, and when he runs into an old flame he doesn't bother to mention it then either. But it's clear that other people don't really count in this movie. There's scarcely any sense of a gay community - though France has the highest incidence of Aids in Europe, you'd think Jean was the only seropositif man in Paris.

'Up in the stars, someone's looking at me,' Collard croons over the end credits - the film keeps telling us how irresistible he is, how great in bed; everyone's crazy about him. It lingers on his virile body (no nasty symptoms here, just one teeny fleck of Kaposi's sarcoma) and cute face. When he breaks his bad news to Laura, it's his reaction that interests the camera.

The take on Aids is dodgy, too. Jean is advised, near the beginning, to 'take advantage of the proof of his illness' - it's thanks to his tragic stigmata that he can finally learn how to love (fellow-sufferers might find this a dubious boon). Just as consumption used to be a literary metaphor for a broken heart, Aids is viewed as a grand, romantic affliction - the physical counterpart of the jealous canker that eats Laura's soul. This is a nave, maddening film, then, but one that poignantly journeys through a night for which there's no morning.

George Cukor's original, 1950 Born Yesterday earned Judy Holliday an Oscar for her performance as the ultimate dumb blonde, in the same year as she was summoned before HUAC (it celebrated American democracy at a time when, more than ever, that freedom was under threat). The remake remains very old-fashioned - all the innocent, starry-eyed paeans to the political process belong to a pre-Watergate age.

But there is much to enjoy: Melanie Griffith is softer than Holliday, but she gives a splendidly calculated comic performance; you always know her sleepy vagueness is completely on the ball. Don Johnson, as the journalist who gives her a crash course in Washington politics, is the film's main weakness, but that fine character actor John Goodman - who also appears to good effect in Matinee, reviewed right - makes Griffith's brash tycoon lover oddly sympathetic; you sense that it's more than money that holds them together. And there are some marvellous new comic set-pieces (watch out for the American Constitution song) and gorgeous gowns.

There is a malevolent God (or perhaps a particularly efficient BBC programmer) - by a cruel, almost Kafkaesque coincidence, Orson Welles's spectacular 1962 version of The Trial plays on BBC2 tomorrow night. The British remake suffers sadly by comparison. It wrests the story from Welles's stateless, Expressionist city into a precise, historical setting: Prague, just before WWI.

This was a deliberate editorial decision - 'With Kafka the nightmare takes place during the day,' said Harold Pinter, who adapted it; 'it's certainly not abstract or fantastic' - and it tips the film away from fable to dusty period piece cluttered with props. Worse is the flat direction - endless slow, dialogue-heavy scenes filmed in plodding close-up - which never conveys the sense of being inside an all-engulfing imaginative vision. As Josef K, Kyle Maclachlan is adequate, if a little bland, but he is bolstered by a sturdy supporting cast, notably Anthony Hopkins, who breathes fire into the tale with his recounting of its central, fearful parable, right at the very end.

South Central comes from Boyz N the Hood territory, but it's a traditonal social conscience movie rather than another gang picture. A young man falls in with a bad lot, who incite him to murder. In jail he meets a black Muslim and undergoes a Malcolm X-style epiphany, realising that violence is not the way out; finally securing parole, he locks horns with his former friend, now a drug dealer, for the heart and mind of his young son. It's a simple, sometimes simplistic film, but also moving, optimistic and uplifting.

Briefly to Mau-Mau, a shadowy, mournfully comic German film which follows the declining fortunes of a group of no-hopers and low-lifes who drift in and out of a tacky inner- city bar. Compared by some local critics to Fassbinder's work, it's well below that league though with some nicely- observed moments.