The following essay was produced as part of the 2018 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 56th edition of the New York Film Festival.
“We could make a beautiful life together.” So pours this utterance, gently from one man’s mouth into another man’s ear in Christophe Honoré’s latest film, “Sorry Angel.” For the speaker, this implied future rests in the distance, bathed in a warm, vivid glow. But to the receiver, the words vibrate like a death rattle. “Sorry Angel” positions itself into a long, somber lineage of HIV/AIDS-crisis-related films set in the nineties, from Robin Campillo’s recent queer activist drama “BPM (Beats per Minute)” to Gregg Araki’s 1992 blood-stained road movie, “The Living End,” but “Sorry Angel” takes care to show the audience the unsentimental side of a gruesome process of physical change.
When we first meet Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), his body hums with life, though he shoulders the burden of many professional and romantic failures, a weakening income, and the presence of his young son. Already carrying the knowledge that he is HIV-positive, Jacques embodies an apathetic approach to a crisis that has consumed thousands of men from his generation. Gone is the hungry activist spirit present in Campillo’s “BPM,” which featured young members of the queer activist group ACT UP Paris bloodying the walls of withholding medical institutions and howling into the loathsome faces of condescending scientists for the basic dignity of their lives.
Also absent from “Sorry Angel” is the kind of punk-rock hedonism of Luke and John’s HIV-diagnosis inspired killing spree in “The Living End.” In that film, Araki externalizes and Americanizes the internal violence of an HIV-positive body on the cusp of becoming an AIDS-riddled body, turning the violence outwards by loading it into a handgun. The war the body has waged on itself becomes a war waged on a society that wants no business finding a cure for it.
Honoré’s film, coated in a funereal fog, provides antithesis to all that bass-thumping urgency. The men in “Sorry Angel” do not raise their fists against death. They mostly attempt indifference, the delicate performance of going about one’s day as if the ominous question of their mortality were not trailing close behind. This is not to say that Jacques isn’t self-aware; rather, he’s teetering on the balance beam of denial and futile acceptance. Even as Jacques struts through his days with a façade of nonchalance, he also engages in bouts of desperate intercourse with a local hustler, as if his rough caress might be the last Jacques ever enjoys.
Jacques’ attempt to deny death at every turn reveals an underlying anxiety about his fate and his control over his own body. He takes a handsome, youthful lover named Arthur (Vincent Lacoste) as both a distraction and as a means to connect his current state of sickness to a more virile past life. Arthur not only represents the modern, social queer livelihood Jacques desperately tries to cling to, but his privileged mobility as a healthy, young queer person also allows him the opportunity to momentarily embody the reckless spirit of cruising culture.
It’s the kind of spirit seen in films like Alain Guiraudie’s 2013 homoerotic thriller “Stranger by the Lake,” or Dome Karukoski’s 2017 biopic “Tom of Finland,” where gay sex recedes into shadow, danger, and isolation. While Arthur travels between the perilous, unprotected night and the open, sun-slicked stickiness of the day, Jacques, with his increasingly sickly frame and feverish joints, eventually must confine his sexual escapades to dimly lit alleyways and barren hotel rooms.
The true power of “Sorry Angel” resides in the mortality crisis Jacques faces as a result of losing autonomy to his physical self. Initially, Jacques remains willfully blind to the reality of his illness. In an early scene, Jacques embraces his dying, old-flame Marco (Thomas Gonzalez) in a tight, compact bathtub meant for one. Marco can barely walk; his body peppered with a constellation of tiny black spots. Nearing the last page of his life, Marco is hyperaware of his condition, but when he voices his concerns over where to be buried, he is met with Jacques’s overtly confident declaration that he will be fine.
When Jacques stares into the sallow whites of Marco’s eyes, he refuses to see his reflection in them, how his body will soon consume him in much the same way. In fact, Jacques only begins to come to terms with the reality of his illness upon hearing of Marco’s swift death soon after. When Arthur comes to visit him in Paris, Jacques refuses to be seen, because to be acknowledged in his state would be the biggest shame. His helplessness is amplified by the sudden clumsiness of his limbs, the sharp pain that accompanies the release of his urine, and the urgency with which a doctor demands he be hospitalized for tests.
“I feel like I can’t undress in front of a man ever again,” Jacques laments at one point, hooked up to a catheter. Lying on a metal tray, reality finally begins to slip in.
Can a man with AIDS in the nineties reclaim any semblance of self-determination once his body has abandoned him? “Sorry Angel” suggests there might be a way, though the path is short. Jacques is able to regain control over his skeletal frame by stamping it with an expiration date of his own choosing.
“They want us to die quietly,” Jacques’ ailing friend remarks to him, in a moment of quiet desperation. But for Jacques, a quiet death is preferable to an indifferent one. In his final moments, he refuses the timeline drawn for him by callous medical practitioners and the ignorant heterosexual public who ignore the threat of his condition, leaving the audience to ponder, in place of the body, the legacy he writes for himself.
Strand Releasing will release “Sorry Angel” in theaters this fall.