‘To Live, To Die, To Live Again’ Review: Gaël Morel’s AIDS-era Drama Doesn’t Break New Ground but Doesn’t Need to Either | Cannes

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Can you believe it’s been about a decade since the last major film that addressed HIV and AIDS? For a long while the theme dominated movies about gay men, especially in the arena of what could be considered serious or prestigious. Many of them – Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On etc. – remain indispensable in the LGBTQIA+ canon. Thanks to Truvada, HIV and AIDS are no longer viewed as an automatic death sentence, nor does the subject remain a fixation within the community. This has in turn opened doors for more diverse and nuanced LGBTQIA+ portrayals in pop culture in the ensuing years. 

Curiously, Gaël Morel, who has acted in one gay-themed film and directed a few over the past three decades, has chosen to revisit this very specific aspect of reality for gay and bisexual men in a particular period in time with To Live, To Die, To Live Again, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.  

Just as an example of how far we’ve come, the film’s French publicists actually felt the need to include a glossary of terms like HIV, AIDS and PrEP in the press kit. Incidentally, the Cannes competition title The Apprentice also skirts these very themes with regard to its depiction of attorney Roy Cohn. But To Live, To Die, To Live Again is more of a time capsule, reminiscent of the kind of gay films actually produced during that era. 

It opens in 1990 proper, when young lovers Sammy (Théo Christine) and Emma (Lou Lampros) both lock lips with a stranger offering them ecstasy. This prompts Sammy to come clean about his bisexuality; Emma is caught off-guard but reacts affirmatively. Fast forward a few years, they have a child together, Nathan (Hélyos Johnson), and are about to move into a new flat.  

While Sammy is taking down walls, a neighbor knocks on the door to complain about the noise. Cyril (Victor Belmondo, grandson of Jean-Paul) is a photographer who keeps a dark room in the building. He gets a burst of inspiration upon seeing Sammy and Nathan, and proposes to take a portrait of them. Emma goes to the gallery to verify Cyril’s catalog and is impressed. 

Cyril of course has an ulterior motive. Most of the time crushes like this don’t work out (see: Misericordia), but it’s just his luck that his attraction to Sammy is seemingly mutual. But Cyril hesitates because he’s HIV-positive, and has recently taken himself off the AZT (remember that?) cocktail due to unbearable side effects. Turns out that isn’t much of a deal-breaker; all it takes is a trip to the nearest condom vending machine. 

Soon Cyril becomes part of the family and offers to marry Emma so that Nathan can inherit his fortune when he dies. That’s not where the story ends, however. The screenplay by Morel and Laurette Polmanss pretty accurately reflects the realities of the time and how people coped with all of it. It’s true that Emma is maybe a bit too receptive of Cyril being a fixture in their lives, but that sort of laissez-faire acceptance isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility either. If anything, the story’s trajectory does register as familiar – not in an after-school-special preachy manner, but it tugs at your heartstrings in ways you’re expecting.  

As with many actors-turned-directors, Morel is clearly an actors’ director. The naturalistic central performances help assuage any sense of implausibility, what with Emma’s reactions to the turns of events. Though inexplicably receiving third billing, Christine has a charming movie-star presence – even opposite a Belmondo! It makes sense he would be a magnet for both men and women. Yet he’s also believable as the down-to-earth dad next door. After a bit part in Gran Turismo, he gets a proper showcase for his talent. To Live, To Die, To Live Again credibly recreates memories of a bygone era, but is it essential that we relive it? Of course, Millennials and Gen-Zers never experienced that time firsthand, or the concomitant fears that so complicated love and lust. A film like this may still be an eye opener. There are also factions of the LGBTQIA+ community, including the likes of Peter Thiel, who are actively trying to undo years of progress. Periodically, we need reminders that decades of activism have yielded fruit and we should not take that for granted. To Live, To Die, To Live Again seems to be the first AIDS-themed film that truly connects to the PrEP era, and hindsight is indeed 20/20.

Grade: B-

This review is from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.

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