They meet in a cinema in 1993, during a screening of The Piano. There is an immediate connection between writer Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) and student Arthur (Vincent Lacoste). Jacques, who has enjoyed many lovers over his life, sees a little of his previous self in the promiscuous Arthur, fifteen years his junior, and is pleasantly amused by his unique outlook on life. It feels like the perfect love story, however, there is one slight catch — Jacques is dying of AIDS. But director Christophe Honoré does not create a weepy here, instead crafting a nostalgic tribute to both a specific time and place, as well as the people who died way before their time was due.
There’s not much else to the story of Sorry Angel that I need to describe here; the film is far more enjoyable if you learn about the uniqueness of these two people as they slowly reveal themselves to us. The handsome twenty-two year-old Arthur is at the peak of youth, exploring his bisexuality with complete abandon; acting like a straight man would in a traditional campus comedy, Arthur is the kind of careless personality queer cinema needs more of. Eager for both pleasure and knowledge, he is drawn to Jacques, a thirty-nine year-old writer who is looking back at a life filled with both great joy and great pain. Their conversations are the best part of the movie; both frank and funny they contain nuggets of wisdom that combine the profound and profane to great effect.
With 80s nostalgia being done to death, filmmakers are turning towards the 90s more and more in order to tell their stories. The early 90s has become a particularly fertile for queer directors, using the height of the AIDS crisis to imbue a certain poignancy into their narratives. Ignored when they were dying by the thousands, films such as 120 BPM and Sorry Angel are finally honouring their memories. The spirit of the time is told best in music, with house classics from the era such as “Pump up the Volume” being generously used to get the audience in the mood. It’s also interesting is to see how the technological limitations of a certain period can be used as narrative devices. The phone booth in particular is deployed to great cinematic effect. (Additionally, setting a story in a previous era seems like another excuse to allow the French to keep smoking, no matter what’s going on).
In all honesty, French film is god’s gift to the world, particularly adept at telling novelistic stories that gather their power through the accretion of small details. Films like Being 17, L’Avenir, and Next Year are all mostly mundane from scene to scene — but this is done intentionally in order to understand the rhythms of a life, by extension absorbing us completely into someone’s personality. Sorry Angel applies the same technique, something that in the wrong hands can be meandering, but manages to get us involved in these characters lives, creating three-dimensional beings that feel completely real.
The walk-talk-have-sex-talk-about-it-again-smoke-cigarettes-and-drink genre is something the French excel at better than any other nation. It seems that no matter whose story is being told, French characters have a wonderful ability to articulate their feelings in a satisfying way. In Sorry Angel, however, this relaxed attitude works against its central theme of love and loss, remaining reserved and lucid when it should be aiming straight for the craw. While Honoré has created some remarkably unique characters who one can imagine living their lives longer after the film has ended, he doesn’t quite do their story justice by giving them big moments (see: the ending of Beau Travail) to truly show off the passion of their personalities. Arthur’s sequel can’t come soon enough.