‘To Live, to Die, to Live Again’ Review: Gaël Morel’s ’90s-Set AIDS Drama Seems a Throwback Before Pointing to a Brighter Future

Nobody really makes AIDS dramas anymore, which seems as good a reason as any to make one now. The disease that, forty-odd years ago, decimated a generation of queer people and prompted a prejudice-driven global panic hasn’t gone away — least of all in various developing countries, where it isn’t popularly defined by gender or sexuality, and death rates are still high. But its narrative has changed. For many, advances in antiretroviral and preventative drugs have stripped HIV of its aura of terror, making it something to be lived with, not a ticking clock to the end. With little posturing or overtly groundbreaking intent, French writer-director Gaël Morel unusually and sensitively bridges these eras of HIV/AIDS in his gentle romantic melodrama “To Live, To Die, To Live Again” — beginning in a distinctly Nineties register of mainstream queer cinema, before looking ahead to the 21st century.

Premiering in the non-competitive Cannes Premiere section on the Croisette this year, Morel’s first feature since 2017’s Sandrine Bonnaire vehicle “Catch the Wind” may be too low-key — not to mention out of step with current modes of LGBTQ storytelling — to make much of an impact outside France, though it will surely find favor with certain queer-oriented distributors and festival programmers. But what might initially seem old-fashioned about the film turns out to be a feature rather than a bug: As suggested by its title, “To Live, To Die, To Live Again” adds a progressive third act to a story once routinely told in only two.

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Morel’s script hangs evolving sexual politics on that age-old melodramatic fixture: the love triangle. A pre-credit scene, set in a chic Parisian nightclub in 1990, establishes the relatively permissive terms of the relationship between Emma (Lou Lampros) and Sammy (Théo Christine). When a passing guy offers them ecstasy, kissing them both to orally deliver the tablet, Sammy is emboldened to admit his bisexuality to Emma, who takes it in stride. Some years later, the couple have a toddler-age son, Nathan (Hélyos Johnson), and move into an apartment above the studio of celebrated photographer Cyril (Victor Belmondo, dead-ringer grandson of Jean-Paul), a single gay man living — not for long, he suspects — with HIV.

Cyril, immediately attracted to Sammy, invites him to pose for a portrait with Nathan. It’s not long before the two begin a hot-and-heavy affair — practicing strictly safe sex — unbeknownst to Emma, who welcomes the handsome, helpful downstairs neighbor into their small family. The friendship is ruptured when she discovers what’s going on between the two men, and complicated further when Sammy discovers he too is HIV-positive. Yet no clean breaks are made, as the three find their uncertain futures messily intertwined by the virus.

What could once have seemed a rather punitive fable regarding sexual promiscuity in the AIDS era, with tragedy visiting the trio at least once, emerges as a more mature and surprising examination of open relationships and non-nuclear family structures — one that hinges, admittedly, on some generous narrative contrivances, but in aid of a wider human truth. Handed the potentially thankless role of a woman left to deal with the consequence of two men’s urges, Lampros limns a more complex arc, carving out true independence from a nontraditional way of life that didn’t necessarily put her needs first. Both her male co-stars are equally sympathetic, however: Christine gives a quiet sense of a man negotiating warring identities, while Belmondo (building on his promise in the 2022 queer drama “Lie With Me”) projects an appealing blend of puppy-dog and lone-wolf allure.

The film effectively wrings tears where you expect them — most ruthlessly on a glintingly lit Italian vacation sequence that will be one character’s last holiday — before finding more understated pathos in the third act. As the story pushes into a new century, medical progress diverts it from a denouement that once would have seemed inexorable, while ART and PrEP give characters greater choice and self-determination. “To Live, To Die, To Live Again” avoids maudlin sentimentality in this regard, even as its tone remains wistful, its touch soft. And there’s a pleasingly sex-positive outlook to proceedings throughout, encapsulated by a jubilant, “Frances Ha”-quoting scene in which Cyril and Sammy, moments after the former discloses his HIV status, sprint to the nearest sidewalk condom dispenser to the strains of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The love doesn’t look so modern these days, but a safer, more open future awaits.

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