Obituary: Cyril Collard

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Cyril Collard, writer, film director and composer, born Paris 19 December 1957, died Versailles 5 March 1993.

TONIGHT, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, in Paris, in the presence of the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, and a host of stars including Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Jean Marais, the first feature film by Cyril Collard, Les Nuits Fauves (Savage Nights), will be in the running for the highest French cinema awards, the Cesars. It has received no less than seven nominations: Best First Film, Best French Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Young Actress, Best Director and Best Montage. Collard wrote the screenplay based closely on his own novel of the same name, due to be published soon by Quartet Books as Savage Nights. He also directed it, acted the leading role and composed the music. A considerable achievement for a man of only 35. But he will not be present at the ceremony. He died of Aids last Friday.

Until almost the last moment, Collard had been hoping to attend what is one of the great artistic events of the Paris season. For the last six years he had known he was HIV positive. But he fought his growing sickness with all the courage, energy, defiant spirit and positive faith in life of a man determined to leave his mark upon the world before it was too late. In one of his last interviews, he stated: 'I have three dreams. The first is to keep love alive in me. Next, that I should go on being well enough until they find a cure for Aids. And then, to make another film.'

His whole life had been a passionate, disorderly, sometimes violent confrontation with accepted professional and sexual behaviour. He felt his childhood and adolescence had been too conventional, so by the age of 16 he was determined to fling himself body and soul into a tumultuous existence in which he would abandon himself to every excess. 'I was educated by the Christian brothers, which was odd, because my family was not religious at all. But that was a determining element in my new way of life, because I had been existing in a sort of bell-jar, isolated from the real world. It encouraged the seeds of violence within me, excited the compulsion to let myself go completely. Which is what happened later, when I was studying maths and engineering: I suddenly threw it all over, ran away to Puerto Rico for a year, where I started to write, to compose music, to play the guitar - and discovered my inborn bisexuality.'

On his return to Paris in the early 1980s, Collard formed his own rock group, Cyr. They had a hit with his 'Maria Theresa' for CBS in 1985. His life was taking off at a vertiginous speed. He started making publicity clips for television. He wrote his first novel, Condamne Amour, which was immediately accepted by Flammarion in 1987, his first really big success. Through a lifelong friend in the cinema world, Claude Davy, he was introduced to directors like Rene Allio and Maurice Pialat, whose assistant he became on Loulou (1980), A nos amours (1983 - in which he had a love scene with Sandrine Bonnaire) and Police (1985).

He was a glutton for work, and for love. 'Within me there was this hunger for affection, for love. It was a craving that impelled me to satisfy immediately every passing lust, every aching desire, whether for boys or girls. My feelings were in total confusion. I was snatched up in a whirlwind of passion, but one in which I did not always find real love.' In this endless frenzy of sex and art, Collard began directing his own brilliant shorts: Alger la blanche, Les raboteurs and above all Taggers, a 1986 television feature with his own musical score about conflicts between young graffiti rebels and the forces of law and order - always suspect in Collard's eyes, for he would submit to no authority, social, artistic or professional.

By 1986, he already knew he was mortally ill:

The disease had upon me an effect that was at once corrective and calming, particularly with regard to my sexual activities. Corrective in the sense that it forced me to give up all sorts of distractions and to concentrate all my remaining energies upon the greatest distraction of all - the making of a film. What happens when Aids hits you? You feel fear, a profound fear: but at the same time a strange calm comes and takes you in hand. It turns fatality into 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.

Cyril Collard's second novel, Savage Nights, was at once an immense success with both critics and public when it appeared in 1989. France-Soir called its author 'The spiritual child of Genet and Pasolini, convinced like Bataille that eroticism and death are inextricably linked'. It is one of the most extraordinary autobiographical novels ever written - violent, sexy, crude, witty, and with an ecstatic drive that carries the reader relentlessly along with its demented, cruel, funny and often dangerous undertones. Collard himself is the novel's young bisexual hero who usually prefers sex with youths. But at an audition for a music video he is shooting, he meets the adolescent Laura and they fall in love. Though he knows he is seropositive, he does not warn her, and takes no precautions. Collard admitted that this irresponsible act was something he had indeed committed with one of his partners in 1986, when he first knew of his seropositive condition.

In the film of the novel, Laura is played with the utmost naturalness by Romane Bohringer, a classic adolescent beauty whose dark eyes express all that is hidden behind her trusting smile and candid passion. Her reaction when she learns the truth is a magnificent piece of acting: the tender, sensitive girl becomes a fury, screaming her shock, indignation and anger. But then her love makes her understand, and forgive. It is one of the most thrilling and disturbing climaxes of both the book and the film, which then moves towards a horrifying, murderous conclusion. The freedom of Collard's cinematic treatment echoes perfectly the fevered vitality of the novel.

During the making of the film, Collard had been afraid his sickness would ravage his dark good looks. But in fact his male beauty was miraculously spared. He seemed to be working under a magic spell. The character he portrays is essentially his own - impulsive, generous, spiritually and emotionally extravagant, suggesting unplumbed depths of secret and ungovernable desires. He can be deeply touching in his love scenes with both boys and girls, but there is also in his brooding visage and prowling presence as he hunts for partners after midnight along the sinister Quai d'Austerlitz a moody, subversive sexuality, a vicious predatory hunger for immediate, intimate casual contacts. One is reminded of Rimbaud's homosensual motto 'Anywhere, anyone, anyhow . . .' And always we are conscious we are watching a condemned man.

Though Collard lightens sordid scenes of boy-hunting with constant touches of humour, what we find endurable in the novel becomes almost unbearable in the film. He said: 'I did not make the film to exorcise my sickness but out of an inner necessity, a longing to convey to others what having Aids really means.' The young director Francois Margolin, whose film Mensonge ('Falsehood') is also about Aids, says Collard believed it now no longer possible to make a film about a love affair without reference to 'the big A'.

The novel sold 80,000 copies, and has already reached the same score in the cheap paperback reprint. The film has clocked up an audience of almost one million, and is still playing in several Paris cinemas, mainly to very youthful audiences. I attended a showing only last week at the Cine Beaubourg. The audience watched and listened with intense concentration, and at the end nobody moved. There was a long silence. However many Cesars Cyril Collard earns tonight, those silences at the end of every showing of his film will be the greatest tribute we can pay to his memory.

(Photograph omitted)