Midway through “Paris 05:59 Théo & Hugo,” Hugo (François Nambot) mentions a favorite book, Honoré de Balzac’s “The Seamy Side of History.” He’s walking and talking with Théo (Geoffrey Couët) as the pair of young gay men search for something to eat in the middle of the night. The book’s title is the sort of detail that comes up when two people are meeting for the first time and the possibility of romance is in the air, delivered in the hope of signaling identity in a compact amount of time, an autobiographical footnote.
“The Seamy Side of History” has an alternate title: It’s sometimes known as “The Wrong Side of Paris,” a fact that is certainly not lost on filmmaking partners Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (“Jeanne and The Perfect Guy,” “The Adventures of Felix”), who’ve made the bold decision to open this tenderhearted love story in a location some might consider the wrongest side of Paris, with an 18-minute, dialogue-free scene of unsimulated sex.
The men meet in the basement of a gay Parisian sex club, take care of the business at hand, learn each other’s names, and then head straight to a hospital emergency room for post-exposure prophylaxis when Hugo, who is HIV-positive, discovers that Théo did not use a condom in the darkened club.
It’s a sequence of events that could take place in any large city on any day of the week. It’s also a narrative that’s often ignored by contemporary queer cinema’s seeming obsession with wholesome images of de-sexualized gay men. But Ducastel and Martineau are determined to have it both ways, to live in reality as well as in the swooning infatuation of love’s first flush.
To that end, newcomers Couët and Nambot are thrown into a filmed dare that many young actors would immediately reject. Stripped literally naked, and tasked with having real sex in a room full of extras doing the same, they communicate with no words, smiles on their faces, sincerity filling in the blanks of inexperience. It’s mostly effective, thanks to precise filmmaking decisions from Ducastel and Martineau. They take care of their leads in surprisingly gentle ways.
Their Paris is a deserted dead-of-night cocoon (“The night belongs to women and fags,” says Hugo). Lit by streetlamps and headlights, the film’s young lovers have, for the most part, all the privacy they need to get acquainted, without looking over their shoulders for heterosexual disapproval (they find a little of that anyway; there’s always a homophobe awake somewhere).
Their initial meeting, as orgiastic as it can possibly be, is shot by first-time cinematographer Manuel Marmier without pornography’s genitalia-focused aesthetic tropes, and with as much intimate and magical lighting as any old-fashioned musical sequence. The men’s bodies glow for each other, their faces fascinated by everything they see except what’s going on around them, like a man-on-man “La La Land.” These guys do a lot of staring into each other’s pretty faces.
The numeric title refers to the time of day, referencing Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” and the film’s antecedents include “Before Sunrise” and “Weekend,” where young lovers learn what might keep them together. Not yet in real love, they operate on endorphins until the jury deliberates a little more, and each person Théo and Hugo meet on the way home — a kind doctor, a Syrian kebab seller, an old woman on the early morning metro — acts as confirmation that they’re headed in the right direction.
But in the meantime, “The Seamy Side of History” holds sway. That novel was about a group of men, traumatized by war, who live monastically, performing anonymous acts of charity. Théo and Hugo, similarly, though decidedly not monk-like, meet in a place where names are irrelevant, and become private caretakers of each other’s wellbeing anyway. It’s as truly romantic and morally unselfish as it is defiantly dirty.
And eventually they’ll stop making googly eyes at each other and get down the real-time task of figuring out who’s going to wash the dishes and vacuum the floor. But that stuff’s never as thrilling or cinematic as the first moments of what Théo refers to as “manufacturing love.” And no movie is going to argue with him on that one.