The man awakes from a restless sleep and makes himself a pot of coffee. The kitchen light falls down on his wavy hair, more salt than pepper, and his once-youthful body, now a strange topography of sags and folds. He shuffles into the living room, sits down at his desk, and attempts to write. That scene comes early in French writer-director-actor Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget, but it’s typical of many that follow in this exquisitely sad, idiosyncratic film à clef about an aging gay gigolo grasping at the embers of memory before they—and he—turn to ash.
This is the third semi-autobiographical feature made by Nolot, who collaborated on the scripts for several André Téchiné movies and may be best known to arthouse audiences as the husband who mysteriously disappears at the start of François Ozon’s Under the Sand. In his previous feature, La Chatte à Deux Têtes (which showed up on these shores in 2003 bearing the considerably less allusive English title Porn Theater), Nolot starred as the nameless 50-year-old patron of a crumbling Paris porn cinema who pines for the handsome young man in the projection booth. This time, Nolot’s character has a name, Pierre, and he’s closing in on 60, but the central themes of the work—decay and loss—remain unwavering.
Nolot plays Pierre with fossilized grandeur, as if he were the last sentry of some pre-AIDS Babylon. When we first encounter him, he’s reeling from the latest departure of his older, wealthier, on-again/off-again lover, Toutoune. He travels the Paris streets like an elegant zombie, taking lonely meals in cafés, a small notebook at his side, spying on other men his age and wondering if he looks as tired as they do. He arranges—but doesn’t particularly seem to enjoy—a rendezvous with a young hustler who asks him to crouch on all fours and squeal like a girl. He visits his therapist. Mostly, like the backyard traveler of John Cheever’s famous short story, “The Swimmer,” he drops in on old friends and lovers and tries to take inventory of six decades of a life.
The conversations are frank and unsentimental, ranging over age and disease and the commerce of sex. The going rates for hustlers are bandied about as if they were the latest oil prices. At one point, Pierre refers to Toutoune as “my father, my mother, my bank.” And in what may be the movie’s pièce de résistance, Nolot crosscuts between the auction of paintings from Toutoune’s estate—paintings that were to have been willed to Pierre—and Pierre arranging a delivery (which, we know by this point, will come with more than just groceries) from his local supermarket.
All in fair trade. Though he’s HIV-positive, Pierre refuses to take any drugs that will risk making him look “like an Auschwitz victim.” But is it any surprise that, for an old gigolo, vanity goeth last before the fall?
At the same time, there are moments of exceptional tenderness here, too, and others in which intimacies are exchanged with no more than a glance or a nearly imperceptible gesture. Before I Forget begins, curiously, with a black dot centered on a white background, slowly growing larger until it cloaks the screen in darkness. But the film culminates in a note of defiance, as Pierre—or is it now just Nolot?—decked out in drag yet somehow at his most naked, stares into the camera and shows us that he will not go quietly into that swallowing void.