It can be very easy to take a look at a moment in time and let the circumstances of an era colour or even overwhelm the story. Many great films have been made whose hearts are lovingly anchored in the impact of how a crisis defined the people it affected, but some of them become so preoccupied with the tragedies to which they are love letters, that they lose sight of individual faces and struggles. Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel is a film that successfully finds a humane balance, where the height of the AIDS crisis silently fills every frame of the film, but the loves, lives, and emotions of the people it studies ring even louder.
Jacques, a former novelist and current bon vivant, is too poor not to live beyond his means, although he knows he should be making a greater effort to produce new material to keep the creditors off his back, but a revolving door of lovers will always be more irresistible. “I know that I need you more than you need me, and I prefer it that way,” Jacques says smilingly to one of his young lovers: while he craves their affection, he intentionally pursues relationships that are doomed to failure in a form of self-sabotage, because he knows he is not ready for commitment. Jacques is also one to compartmentalize the different facets of his life: as a lover, a writer, and the father of a young boy, these roles ultimately bleed into each other, but he has no idea how to reconcile them. And all of these qualities are exacerbated by the fact that he is terminally sick. The pursuit of pleasure and love become the template for how he approaches relationships and squanders his time, until he has found them, and it becomes safer for him to swiftly run away.
Arthur, a twenty-two-year-old student from Brittany, has always thought he preferred the company of girls, until he finds himself cruising parking lots for late-night trysts with attractive men. A former girlfriend questions Arthur, “How could you be with someone like me and still sleep with them?” “Because I only ever fell for girls, until recently,” he explains.
By chance, or perhaps as fate would allow, Jacques enters a cinema and Arthur catches his eye in the audience. Jacques sits next to Arthur, and they engage in concupiscent flirtation. “I resent how cute your generation is,” Jacques laments, and Arthur replies, “Flattery will get you nowhere.” But it’s not flattery: Jacques is by no means old, and his looks are attractive, but he is mature enough to realize that youth is wasted on the young and that death comes too soon. After all, his friend and former lover Marco has returned to stay in Jacques’ apartment as he suffers the last stages of AIDS-related complications. Jacques is a writer, so the cliché of an older man who pines for a younger man is not lost on him, but as he has grown increasingly aware of how cruel disease and the passage of time can be, it becomes important to him to fill his life with as much beauty as possible. Arthur suggests that they leave to make love to each other, but Jacques resists: Arthur should first finish watching the film and then meet him outside the theatre. Once they reunite, they bounce from location to location across Paris, fruitlessly looking for a place where they can enjoy each other privately, until the night culminates in a quick stop in an alley, followed by sharing sandwiches and beer as they lie next to the Seine.
Once they part, life trudges forward for the pair as they wait to be reunited, and every subsequent frame of the film feels the distance between them and is overwhelmed by each one’s haunting grip on the other’s thoughts. Arthur has been writing hoards of unreturned postcards to Jacques and has finally lost hope that he would ever receive a phone call from him. It is only when Arthur meets a young “blond with a cute ass” and brings him back to his room that he hears that elusive ring of the telephone. Jacques has picked this inopportune moment to finally reach back to him, and he becomes jealous and more invested in Arthur once he guesses that he is entertaining another man. It is a wakeup call to both: Jacques realizes how much he cares for Arthur and how easily he could lose him; Arthur feels like Jacques is the first man he has ever begun to truly love. They eventually make plans to reunite, but questions of fitness and emotional inhibition threaten to come between them, and Jacques must work to conquer his apprehensions, and allow himself to be vulnerable and open to a love that has eluded him.
Chief among Sorry Angel’s virtues is that while it acknowledges how Jacques’ battle with his health informs his emotional reactions, it shows that unrelated innate fears are his biggest obstacle. Struggles with his health have a hand in shaping his already complicated emotional landscape, but even if Jacques could live in a vacuum where disease did not exist, the film suggests that most of his inhibitions would still be self-inflicted phenomena. Jacques’ awareness of how his fleeting mortality influences whether he will be able to let himself love and begin to dream, when he has so little time left, is a fear that Sorry Angel will not minimize, while refusing to treat it like a life-defining sentence. In concentrating the majority of its energy on identifying the personal reasons which can prevent someone from daring to be intimate, and how it is possible to move past one’s fears and reservations, Sorry Angel is a testament to hope, exploring how to maximize the time we have, and to use that time in search of happiness and fulfillment.