Out of France: Film star's death ends French taboo on Aids

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The Independent Online
PARIS - What is normally a celebration was a red-eyed affair this year. As the French cinema world gathered this week to award the Cesars, the national equivalent of Oscars, the most talked-of laureate could not be there. He had died of Aids three days earlier.

Cyril Collard was honoured for an autobiographical film, Les Nuits Fauves (Wild Nights), based on his book of the same name. He directed the film and starred in it, playing a young bisexual facing the consequences of being HIV-positive. The film, released in October, turned into a cult and Collard, still apparently keeping the illness at bay, became a familiar face through a series of television interviews. He died last Friday, aged 35.

The film took four awards, including best film, best first film and best young female hopeful, which went to Romane Bohringer who played Collard's girlfriend. In her acceptance speech, a tearful Ms Bohringer expressed the hope that 'up there, you will find a film and a camera'.

Objectively, it is legitimate to ask - whatever its box office success - whether the often slow- moving Les Nuits Fauves, largely and obviously filmed with a hand- held camera, would have taken the best film award had the decision-making not been in progress as Collard lay dying. Another obvious candidate was Indochine by Regis Wargnier, which took five awards, including the best actress for Catherine Deneuve. But it is unlikely that there will be any resentment. The French artistic world, like that of so many other countries, is losing many to Aids.

Until now, however, although France has a reputation for frankness in sexual matters, the subject has been almost taboo. Thierry le Luron, a young comedian, was the first French show- business victim of Aids in 1986. Yet, to this day, his real cause of death is often covered up. Collard's contribution was to make it a subject for public discussion.

It has been a strange season in the French cultural prize world. Another film, Jean-Jacques Annaud's L'Amant, filmed in English, was nominated in the best foreign-language film category, a compromise category after the Cesars jury threatened not to accept French-directed films as French if the original versions were made in other languages.

The main literary prize, the Goncourt, was awarded in November to the novel Texaco, by Patrick Chamoiseau. It is a romanticised history of a shantytown in Martinique through slavery and emancipation into the 20th century, when it took on the name of a nearby refinery. Told through many witnesses, it has a William Faulkner or Andre Brink quality.

Mr Chamoiseau, a native Martiniquais, caused instant controversy. First, on the island, where some saw him as a nationalist rival to Aime Blanc, the most prominent, and pro-metropolitan, local politician and father of Martinique letters. Second, in Paris, where a most respected authority said the novel was simply not good enough for such a prize. The Goncourt has traditionally been a controversial prize, with many writers alleging that it is simply passed around between the main publishing houses anxious to have an instant best-seller.

Bernard Pivot, the host of a popular television cultural programme, wrote in the literary magazine Lire - which he edits - that the Goncourt jury had been influenced by a campaign orchestrated by Milan Kundera, the Czech writer and frequent visitor to Martinique.

Mr Kundera, who had written articles in praise of Mr Chamoiseau's work, had organised a meeting between the Martiniquais and critics during a visit Mr Chamoiseau had made to Paris, Mr Pivot said. He made it clear that he believed Mr Kundera had every right to promote his friend but said the critics and judges should not have been influenced.

Mr Pivot said, in private, that two of the judges - all prominent novelists - who had voted for Texaco had told him they had not read the book to the end.

Mr Pivot's reproach was that the book was not written in true Creole nor true French and that this made it heavy going, too heavy, he suggested for a foreign reader such as Mr Kundera. 'How did Milan Kundera read this big and arduous book from end to end? Its linguist complications discouraged readers whose first language is, after all, French.'

Mr Pivot said 'no one will ever be able to reply to this question: without Kundera's commitment, would Patrick Chamoiseau have had the Goncourt? I say no]'