Written by Andrea Cardenas, Creative Careers Intern

The experimental road film, NO SEX LAST NIGHT (1996), co-directed by French artist Sophie Calle and American photographer Greg Shephard (and playing at AFS Cinema as part of our latest Essential Cinema series), is a quasi-fictional exploration of a woman and man traveling from New York to California, their trip and crumbling relationship documented through the use of video cameras and revelatory voice-overs. It is evocative and haunting — the intimate moments at times difficult to watch and other times hard to look away from. The final result is an 80-minute documentary-like work of art that feels like a voyeuristic peak at the most incompatible couple you’ve ever known. It borders on an invasion of privacy but one that is happily welcomed by the creators.

Calle, a world-renowned multidisciplinary artist, is known for toeing the thin lines between privacy and exposure, artifice and reality. In two of her most famous pieces, The Hotel (1981) and Address Book (1983), she obsessively documents people’s personal and private lives. She works as an ethnographer and intrusively observes minute details, in these cases messy and revealing hotel rooms and a stranger’s address book, respectively. (The photographs and accompanying text, often on display at museums, are now published as books.) In the film NO SEX LAST NIGHT, Calle turns the camera on herself and her partner in a bold manner. It’s hard to tell what is reality and what is a performance, but one thing is unquestionable: the film is buoyed by Calle’s very real grief over the death of her friend, fellow artist and writer Hervé Guibert. 

NO SEX LAST NIGHT even opens with a solemn dedication to Guibert: “We dedicate this story to the writer Hervé Guibert who died of AIDS, in Paris, the afternoon of December 27, 1991, seven days before this trip began.” Guibert is given a symbolic burial by Calle in this opening sequence, who explains in a stirring voice-over how she has fled from Paris to avoid the pain of his imminent death, quietly honoring her friend at seaside and reminiscing over their friendship. She calls his answering machine to hear his voice and leaves one final message before embarking on her trip.

A year before Calle’s trip began, Guibert similarly picked up a portable camera and decided to record himself as well as the decline of his body while battling the aggressive disease. The result, the posthumously released MODESTY AND SHAME (1992), screening alongside NO SEX LAST NIGHT at AFS Cinema, is a video chronicle of his gut-wrenching final moments and a brutal artifact of one of the most devastating periods in recent history. 

After being diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, Guibert wrote To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a graphic and candid account of the reality of living with the disease, which begins with a preface revealing his own HIV status to the world. The details are unsparing and written in an almost emotionally dissociated, straightforward manner. The novel, controversial for a number of reasons, jettisoned his fame and made him the face of the disease in France. It’s not that his extensive body of work had been completely ignored, but a collective morbid curiosity and fascination of a then-mysterious and stigmatized disease superseded any piece he could’ve ever created in his lifetime.

MODESTY AND SHAME is quietly brutal in the most affective of ways. Like with NO SEX LAST NIGHT, it is an unvarnished look at the most private moments of a person’s life but simultaneously a celebration of the artist that once was and will forever be. Today, many retrospectives on his life and work have opened at museums and institutions all over the world, and he is remembered less for his once-sordid identity as a gay man suffering from HIV and more for selflessly enlightening a woefully misinformed generation, his vital and significant contributions to the world of art and culture finally receiving the dignity they deserve.

Calle and Guibert are intrinsically tied by more than just their friendship: their genre-bending, experimental works are guided by a strong desire to reveal, whether it’s other people or themselves. But one thing is certain: these are their stories to tell.

AFS’s Essential Cinema series YOU’RE MY GREATEST TREASURE: 10 EXERCISES IN INTIMACY continues July 18 and 22 with MODESTY AND SHAME and NO SEX LAST NIGHT.