Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
“Sorry Angel” is about a sad, brilliant author struggling with AIDS, but it’s not a grim death drama. The most emotional and understated work from French director Christophe Honoré is a touching tribute to the art and culture of early ‘90s France, charting creative obsessions young and old, and strikes a note that’s life-affirming and melancholic.
Set in 1993, the movie centers on Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps, the breakout star of erotic thriller “Stranger By the Lake”), an HIV-positive novelist of some note who has reached a crossroads. He’s single, but lives with a young son in his cluttered Paris apartment, where middle-aged neighbor Arthur (Vincent LaCoste) pays frequent visits as the men reminisce about the old days. In the midst of this dynamic, Jacques meets Arthur (Vincent LaCoste), an aspiring filmmaker in his early twenties keen on escaping that parochial seaside world of Brittany for the fast-paced metropolitan pleasures of Parisian life.
In essence, he wants the same creative community that Jacques outgrew ages ago, and the pair’s eventual love affair becomes a shrewd window into intergenerational contrasts and a treatise on conflicting ideals. By exploring French sexuality across the ages, “Sorry Angel” offers a variation on the formula of Andrew Haigh’s delicate two-hander “Weekend” for the Francophile set.
Arthur, who eagerly attends ACT UP meetings, treats Francois Truffaut’s gravesite like a religious pilgrimage, embraces his apparent bisexuality, hooks up with Jacques on a whim, and becomes obsessed with the older man’s life. But Jacques has lost interest in the pleasures of his profession, and even as he finds some measure of solace in Arthur’s energetic proclivities, the writer feels his own enthusiasms fading away.
Honoré’s screenplay flits between the two men and their wildly different lives. At times, Arthur’s such a clear-cut reflection of Jacques’ halcyon days (and, perhaps, Honoré’s), it’s almost as though the younger character’s storyline serves as a flashback. However, the movie has blatant roots in a specific time and place, at times overplaying that context, with movie posters from the era adorning nearly every wall and music-cue signposts wherever possible.
In a movie with such a subtle relationship at its core, these period details stand out, as does the blunt nature of the dynamic in play. It’s no spoiler to say that while Arthur matures over the course of his encounters with Jacques, the older man rediscovers some aspect of his youth, and that’s pretty much the movie’s arc.
But Honoré’s too complex a filmmaker for the drama to rest on the simplicity of its premise. Not since 2007’s “Love Songs” has the filmmaker crafted so many absorbing moments, including one of the very best scenes of his career: a prolonged cruising sequence involving several men in a parking lot after dark that unfolds with the poetic language of a dance sequence. Honoré transforms the sordid circumstances into a collective statement on the relationship between desire and community that sits at the center of the movie’s compelling thesis.
“Sorry Angel” fills its two hour-plus running time with a number of moments that work best on their own terms than as pieces of a narrative whole. Despite Honoré’s own substantial filmography (in addition to “Love Songs,” the movie has much in common with the bittersweet drama “Dans Paris”), “Sorry Angel” is closer in tone to Olivier Assayas’ textured nostalgic jaunts, particularly “Summer Hours” and “Something in the Air,” which view their protagonists as trapped between the echoes of the past and uncertainties about the future. Like Assayas, Honoré delights in observing his characters in fleeting moments of joy, and a scene where Arthur and his younger pals dance to “Pump Up the Volume” in the park after dark epitomizes the movie’s small pleasures.
“Sorry Angel” doesn’t strain from too much ambition; it’s a sharp snapshot of two men at pivotal moments in their lives, and ends on a note not too different from the one it starts on. But that cycle is central to its gentle intellectual flow. “Life is dumber than films,” Jacques says, and “Sorry Angel” represents Honoré’s own sturdy effort to improve that equation.
“Sorry Angel” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in Official Competition. Strand will release it on February 15.