So Many of Us
by Michael Koresky
Dir. Christophe Honoré, France, Strand Releasing
Love is indefinable, ever-present but also a mere shadow of itself, in Christopher Honoré’s latest film Sorry Angel. The on-again, off-again romance between thirty-something Parisian novelist Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) and early-twenties Breton étudiant Arthur (Vincent Lacoste) provides the exhilarating center for a film in which a succession of men come and go, unabashed in erotic connection if timid in commitment. These two circle around each other for a number of unspecified years, in the early nineties, during the height of the AIDS crisis; though disease and decline loom, it does not define or overwhelm them or the film. Honoré refuses to make their lives common tragedy, and the film is all the more powerful and poignant for it. Sorry Angel, by design, chronicles a decade of death and uncertainty yet is more driven by the emotional specificity of queer love, laying bare its conundrums without any pretensions to “universalization.”
The washed-out handsomeness of Deladonchamps, whom one might readily recall from his role as a death-driven cruiser in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, is used to great effect as Jacques, who from the film’s beginning gives off a whiff of already having been through the mill, romantically and professionally. Everything in his life in Paris seems to be ill at ease: for three years or so, he has been mildly involved with a younger, cute but neurotic gigolo who seems vaguely disinterested in him; he’s financially dependent on his father and emotionally reliant on an older journalist friend, Mathieu, played with insecurity and wise restraint by a mustachioed Denis Podalydès. As we come to understand, there’s further reason for Jacques’s feeling unsettled: he’s HIV-positive, which makes it all the more crushing for him as he slowly comes to terms with the encroaching sickness of his AIDS-afflicted friend Marco (Thomas Gonzalez). Jacques is the kind of guy who thinks he’s avoiding conflict by staying emotionally disconnected from others but who ends up inevitably affecting everyone else’s life anyway; not for nothing does Marco at one point call him a “complicator.”
Arthur, on the other hand, dives headfirst into his and others’ lives with youthful abandon. Though he has a girlfriend, Nadine (Adèle Wismes), whom he seems mildly interested in, nighttime sojourns to a gay-cruisey parking lot indicate a still cloaked truer self waiting to fully emerge (Honoré films an early cruising scene with elegantly choreographed, wordless camera and body movements, its mechanical, silent eroticism in stark contrast to the rest of this garrulous film’s more impatient style). Intellectually curious, in a way that occasionally comes off as arrogant, Arthur—who like Honoré himself once was, is a university student in the city of Rennes—has an impish impulsiveness that stands in contrast to Jacques’s well-worn cynicism. Early in the film, Arthur casually asks his roommate, “Where will we be in 10 years?” with a bemused wistfulness. “We’ll be nothing,” his friend confirms with the playful, posturing worldliness of youth. The question hangs over the film, and makes us wonder how Jacques, whom Arthur hasn’t encountered yet, might respond. With age comes fatalism and illness, but these don’t speak for an entire life.
For a film that often wears its cinephile bona fides on its sleeve (posters adorning walls include Fassbinder’s Querelle and Carax’s Boy Meets Girl), its most charming conceit is having Jacques and Arthur meet cute in a movie theater during a screening of Jane Campion’s The Piano. Aside from functioning as an apt time marker (situating the film’s beginnings in 1993, which immediately places it in a lineage of trailblazing New Queer films), Campion’s film was the kind of art-house film that bridged gaps between different types of viewers, appealing to both outré and middlebrow sensibilities. This divide can be felt in the two men’s divergent reactions to the film: Arthur sniffs at it, deeming it “too storybook,” while wiser, older Jacques summarily, off-handedly chastises him for not noticing its brilliance. This all happens in the form of a pickup, which also reminds one of The Piano’s unabashed sexual frankness, often forgotten amidst talk of it as a Miramax prestige product. Few would mistake Sorry Angel for a middlebrow work, though for this film Honoré does trade in the shock value and whimsy of some of his earlier films (Ma mère, Love Songs) for a more pragmatic, character-driven approach, informed by a constantly simmering despair.
Yet in its specificity about the nature of queer desire, Honoré’s film isn’t out to mollify the masses. This is clear not only from its depictions of sex, which always feel authentic whether taking the form of joyful eroticism or mournful grief-fucking, but also in its recognition of gay heritage. Much as Honoré is concerned with issues of historical queer representation on film, Jacques embodies and pursues queer culture, making his homosexuality as much an intellectual as a physical pursuit. His sexual and emotional relationship with Arthur is also a transaction of ideas, a passing down of queer historical signifiers from one generation to the next so they don’t get lost in the avalanche of history. For Jacques, gay attraction also can’t help but exist along a continuum of cultural reference points, as is clear from his wholly entertaining telephone monologue to Arthur in which he details the categories of men one could fall in love with, and their respective identities: there’s the “Maxim’s” type (embodying youth and illusion), the “Walt Whitman” (the one who really sleeps around), the “Vondelpark” (the impassive Nordic sort who gives little in return), and the “Wrong Blond” (he’s not the boy you expected to show up, but he’ll do—W. H. Auden fell for one, Chester Kallman, apocryphally). Is brunet Arthur a potential Wrong Blond? Or perhaps fair-haired Jacques was all along?
As the film continues, Honoré’s characters spirited debates give way to blue-tinged melancholy. The realities of Jacques’s life—his illness, the son he had with his friend Isabelle (Sophie Letourneur)—increasingly come to the fore and to Arthur’s growing awareness, which is one with his expanding social consciousness. Honoré has said that Sorry Angel, the first film of his career to dive headlong into the nineties and all that decade meant for gay men and for him as an incipient gay artist, is “an incomplete transmission” and reflective of an “inconsolable feeling.” The film feels like a kind of reawakening to dormant, bestirred emotions; like Robin Campillo’s superb BPM (Beats Per Minute) from last year, it reopens the doors to a still tender recent past we’re only starting to come to terms with, especially in light of LGBTQ social and political advancements. Sorry Angel is clearly intensely personal for Honoré, and it’s part of a larger exorcising of pain, being the middle part of a triptych that includes his novel Ton père, published in France last year, and his play The Idols, which was staged for the first time this month, in Lausanne. It’s also inconclusive, as any impossible romance should be, ending in a moment of heartbreaking ambivalence that feels, sadly, just right.