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Review: Sorry Angel Reorients Our Understanding of Inescapable Illness

AIDS is everywhere in Christophe Honoré’s film, though not as a looming monster sneakily picking its next victim.

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Diego Semerene

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Sorry Angel
Photo: Strand Releasing

In almost any gay love story set in the 1990s, AIDS underpins the narrative or takes it over entirely, and normally in somber or hysteric fashion. Is the disease haunting the characters as an imminent kiss of death or already inhabiting them? When will it start to stain their skins, turning gleeful youngsters into skeletons? In cinema, the disease is too grisly and epic to appear as mere detail or a single layer of a world complicated by so many others. In writer-director Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel, AIDS is indeed everywhere, though not as a looming monster sneakily picking its next victim, nor as the catastrophic result of political negligence and homophobic policy. In this film, AIDS is décor.

By the time Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), a successful 39-year-old Parisian author, and Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), a Breton college student, meet in 1990, the epidemic has already settled into the everyday lives of queer men as a kind of inevitable companion. For Jacques, this means sharing his home with his young son, Louis (Tristan Farge), and his dying ex-boyfriend, Marco (Thomas Gonzalez), without much spectacle or commotion. In a particularly memorable scene, when Marco tries to say a final goodbye to Louis, thinking he won’t be around much longer, Jacques tells his ex to stop being so dramatic.

In acknowledging AIDS as something that all queer men have to reckon with in some capacity, Honoré exposes the ways in which some have turned great tragedies into a banality if they are, as suggested by the French title of the film (Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite), to keep on “loving, enjoying, and running fast”—to evade death’s premature grasp. Sorry Angel ultimately shows us how exercising a certain hospitality toward inescapable illness may have been an unsustainable strategy in the ‘90s for some, but one that was bound to break even the most positively intentioned bodies, no matter how fast they ran.

The story that develops between Jacques and Arthur doesn’t seem to be driven by romance or sexual chemistry, but by Jacques’s professorial need to teach Arthur a thing or two. Much more interesting than their relationship, then, is Honoré’s subtle portrait of the early ‘90s as a time of accelerated mortality and mourning, but also of material encounters of all kinds. And not just encounters between people, but with the materiality of objects—which becomes the ultimate reminder that one is, despite everything, still alive.

Honoré takes us back to an era of bulky headphones and answering machines, and telephones with their fat buttons and cords that were never long enough—all capable of harbouring the most hopeful and the most dreadful of messages. Honoré’s objects emanate a nostalgia for a world where death was in the air, if not in one’s veins, at least not yet. They help Honoré tell a story of transmission during a plague that goes much beyond epidemiologic contamination. They add texture to the tragedy, and to the whiff of pleasure that cut through the perennial stench of loss, reminding us of a time when someone could say, “I got lost,” and not be lying.

Sorry Angel allows its audience to embark on a nostalgic fantasy of the ‘90s as a time when cruising was as much about intellectual seduction as bestial fucking—when older gay men passed on the marvels of Auden and Whitman to younger ones over the telephone, and words were predominantly written on paper. And whether it was Jacques’s Paris or Arthur’s Rennes, the city had to be physically explored, like an actual web, for experiences to transpire at all. Here, photos of Hervé Guibert make up an improvised altar inside Arthur’s bedroom, the French writer and photographer’s books piling up on the college student’s bedside table. The choice of Guibert as décor is quite fitting as it’s difficult to think of another author who best utilized pleasure itself as a way to both resist and surrender to AIDS. Honoré’s fantasy is Guibert’s strategy: more smoking, more fucking, more literature.

Cast: Pierre Deladonchamps, Vincent Lacoste, Denis Podalydès, Thomas Gonzalez, Adèle Wismes Director: Christophe Honoré Screenwriter: Christophe Honoré Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 132 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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