Sensuality and mortality commingle defiantly in Christophe Honore’s radiant and wrenching new film, Sorry Angel (Plaire, aimer et courir vite). Premiering in competition at Cannes, the latest effort from the talented, wildly erratic, incorrigibly French writer-director is a tale of sex and death, desire and disease, love and friendship — of one man coming into his own and another preparing to say goodbye to the world and let its wonders slip from his grasp.
Set in 1993, the movie is also a period-specific examination of gay male identity, or identities. That was a time when the initial shock and stigma of AIDS had faded, but the diagnosis was still terminal. Pleasures of the flesh were often pursued under a cloud of consciousness. While some were just starting to revel in their sexual freedom, others were “paying the price.”
Vibrant and moving.
Sorry Angel tells the story of two men navigating their feelings for each other from opposite ends of that spectrum of experience: 35-year-old writer Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), who has AIDS, and 22-year-old student Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), who’s in the heat of his queer awakening and eager to jump into bed, and a relationship, with Jacques.
That Arthur barely blinks at Jacques’ condition is one poignant aspect of a complex dynamic that Honore teases out with warmth, intelligence and more than a dash of mischief. Sorry Angel traffics in familiar subgenres (disease-of-the-week melodrama, May-December romance, bildungsroman), but blends them so seamlessly, and so vibrantly, that the result never feels stale. It’s more accessible than the director’s best, and best-known, movies — the gorgeous French New Wave homages Dans Paris and Love Songs — though it shares both their seductiveness and their sting.
The two main characters meet in Rennes (the capital of Brittany, in northwestern France), where small-town boy Arthur is enrolled at the local university and Jacques, a proud Parisian, is overseeing a production of his latest play. One afternoon, Jacques walks into a movie theater showing Jane Campion’s The Piano. He immediately notices Arthur, who reciprocates, turning from the screen to check him out. “Look at the film!” Jacques admonishes the younger man teasingly, before changing seats and settling in next to him.
Later that night, trailing Jacques and his play’s leading lady as they walk home, Arthur overhears her joking about him having AIDS. (Honore and DP Remy Chevrin capture this crucial sequence in cleverly choreographed and sustained tracking shots.) The actress’ shocking lack of tact registers as one of the movie’s few forced notes, but by sparing us — and the protagonists — the obligatory diagnosis-revelation scene, Honore signals that he’s sidestepping the usual tropes.
That willingness to throw out the narrative playbook, or at least reshuffle its pages, is evident in how the filmmaker handles the romantic arc, too: Sorry Angel unspools more as a study of two sporadically intertwined lives than a conventionally structured love story. By the time Jacques and Arthur cross paths, the film has already established who they are as individuals, drawing us into their inner and outer worlds with the kind of novelistic texture found in the best work of Honore’s compatriot Andre Techine.
Jacques shares custody of his primary-school-age son, Loulou (Tristan Farge), with the boy’s mother (Sophie Letourneur). He spends evenings hanging with best friend and neighbor Mathieu (a touching Denis Podalydes), a journalist. And he invites a former lover dying of AIDS, Marco (Thomas Gonzalez), to stay with him for his last days. Arthur, meanwhile, is intellectually curious — a reader and cinephile — but restless. He’s also sexually indifferent to girlfriend Nadine (Adele Wismes, very good), getting his kicks by sneaking out to a gay cruising spot after dark.
Sex with men constitutes an exciting new world for Arthur, so it’s no wonder he comes on strong, deploying self-deprecation and an insistent, puppy-ish ardor to talk his way into Jacques’ bed. Jacques is flattered, but cautious, mindful that his time is limited. Both leads give luminous, deeply nuanced performances; it’s a pleasure to watch them fuss and flirt, then figure their way into something more meaningful.
Lacoste (Lolo) is tall and lean, yet still soft — as much boy as man — with slightly droopy features and lacquered black hair; he’s like a Greek statue sculpted by a cartoonist. Arthur has youthful swagger in spades, but Lacoste shows us the neediness and yearning underneath. Deladonchamps (Stranger by the Lake) is equally fine, lending his hyper-articulate, somewhat self-dramatizing sophisticate a haunted tenderness that prevents him from sliding toward caricature. Jacques isn’t raging against the dying of the light; he’s resigned, wistful and hesitant to start something he can’t finish.
That’s why, once he’s back in Paris, he doesn’t contact Arthur for a while. When he finally does call, Arthur is sulky, wounded at having had to wait so long. But Jacques charms his way right past Arthur’s defenses — just as Arthur did to Jacques the night they met — dazzling him with repartee rich in naughty digressions and literary references (in a swoon-worthy touch, Arthur actually takes notes while on the phone).
Honore continues to keep the two apart, building tension as the central relationship progresses in epistolary fits and starts. Arthur finally goes to see Jacques in Paris, but Sorry Angel again denies us the expected payoff; the reunion is dampened by the physical realities of Jacques’ illness, as well as both men’s increasingly acute awareness that their romance — if they ever allow it to truly happen — will be brief.
The stark difference in where these two are in their lives is rendered with piercing clarity in a scene that finds Arthur getting tipsy with Jacques and Mathieu during his visit to the capital. Drunk on booze, high on life, Arthur sits on the couch pontificating, philosophizing, testing out theories and opinions; the other two look on, amused, and perhaps a bit envious of their younger comrade, whose journey is beginning just as Jacques’ is winding down.
Part of what gives Sorry Angel its stealthy, lingering power is how vividly it illustrates the cruel paradox at the heart of AIDS: This was a disease often contracted from loving too freely. It’s a bracingly carnal movie — if not especially graphic, by European standards — full of sweat-slicked skin and ravenous embraces. Like Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) last year, Honore’s film insists on showing people with AIDS as sexual beings, even if their sexual identities are complicated by the illness and its attendant physical and emotional anguish. In one shattering scene, Jacques and his ex Marco lie in the bath, holding each other as they chat away, their bodies ailing but still hungry for human touch. Among other things, this is a movie about characters — AIDS sufferers and those close to them — who want to transcend the disease, and have to accept that they cannot.
That probably makes Sorry Angel sound heavier than it plays. The pic is fleet-footed and good-humored, brimming with Gallic indulgences: wine, cigarettes, lots of talk and dancing (the soundtrack is peppered with French pop, bien sur). And while it has visual energy to spare, the movie is more relaxed and less flamboyantly playful than most of Honore’s other films, unfolding with naturalistic grace — precise but unfussy framing, fluid camera movements — and fewer New Wave-y winks and nods (though Truffaut gets his due, along with Fassbinder, Rimbaud, Whitman and Isabelle Huppert).
There’s also a generosity, a compassion here that feels more profound than usual for Honore. At one point, while the adults bicker, the camera follows Loulou as he leaves the room, nestles into a corner beside a window overlooking Paris and quietly starts to knit. It’s a moment at once devastating and comforting: The boy is already practicing the kind of resourcefulness and resilience he’ll need to summon when his father dies. It’s also evidence that the filmmaker is attuned not just to the heartbreak of Jacques and Arthur, but to the world around and beyond them, which — mercifully — will keep turning long after their love story is over.
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Vincent Lacoste, Pierre Deladonchamps, Denis Podalydes, Adele Wismes, Thomas Gonzalez, Clement Metayer, Quentin Thebault, Tristan Farge, Sophie Letourneur, Marlene Saldana, Luca Malinowski, Rio Vega
Writer-director: Christophe Honore
Producers: Philippe Martin, David Thion
Director of photography: Remy Chevrin
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Set designer: Stephane Taillasson
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: MK2 Films