Last year, Cannes gifted us with Robin Campillosrousing, righteous AIDS activism drama BPM. This year, another film looks at AIDS in early 1990s France, Christophe HonorésSorry Angel, a rich and thoughtful romantic drama that is less about politics than it is about matters of the heart, and body. A chewy, handsomely staged novel of a movie, Sorry Angel (whose much better French title translates to Pleasure, Love, and Run Fast) contains moments of piercing intelligence and heartbreaking beauty. Its an epic diptych look at two lives converging, one in many ways just beginning, the other faltering to a close. I was absolutely in love with it—until the very end.
I wont spoil anything by describing what about the ending of Honorés film doesnt work for me. And perhaps my disappointment with how Honoré resolves (or doesnt resolve) his story is actually a testament to just how good the rest of his film is—its such an enveloping, insightful piece of filmmaking that I expected to be extra walloped at the end. Ah well. Enough of what maybe doesnt work. Lets talk about what does.
The fabulously named Pierre Deladonchamps plays Jacques, a Parisian writer of some renown who, in 1993, is 35, sick but stable-ish with AIDS, and listless in love. He has a penchant for young brown-haired men, but the one hes currently with is flighty and non-committal. Lucky for Jacques, then, that while in Rennes for a rehearsal of a play hes written, he has an endearing meet-cute with a precocious semi-closeted student named Arthur (Vincent Lacoste, whose resemblance to a young Louis Garrel, with whom Honoré has worked several times, suggests Honoré might have a type too). But the course of love does not run predictably in the rueful Sorry Angel, as Honoré pulls apart and reunites these would-be lovers and the film ponders, oh, many things.
Watching the film, I was struck by its similarities to the novels of the essential gay British author Alan Hollinghurst. (Read his latest, The Sparsholt Affair, please.) Like Hollinghursts work, Sorry Angel has a sophisticated sharpness—a snobbiness, perhaps—that occasionally gives way to reveal a deep compassion for its characters. The film has a melancholy, empathetic soul; its keenly attuned to the small and everyday graces of life in the world. Sorry Angel is full of torrents of speech, characters nattering on about gay sexual politics and literature. But these men are not simply walking ideas, theories made manifest.
Honoré is careful to highlight their specific facets, the things that make them entirely human; theyre edged by prickliness, rounded by kindness. We see it in Jacquess tenderness and bitterness toward his dying ex-lover, in Arthurs blunt but loving relationship with his ex-girlfriend. (Arthur could be described, maybe, as bisexual.) Both are assholes, but in Honorés gentle, confident shaping, they are not simply navel-gazing egotists obsessed with their sexual prowess and desirability. Thats a part of them, sure, but underneath that, or alongside it, is exactly what is so good about Hollinghursts work: a complexity of spirit and motivation. Their utter, full-bodied realness is what makes their mirrored descent and ascent—Jacquess winking out, Arthurs flickering into adult being—so moving, and so shattering. Side characters are also each given their due; the world of Sorry Angel is lovingly and thoroughly populated.
Housing all this are Honorés supple aesthetics. He sets his camera gliding at crucial moments, moving the story forward with a quiet, inexorable ache. His music choices range from pop of the day to opera to smooth instrumentals, all (except the last one, maybe) perfectly supporting the films emotional undulations. Its a stunningly, but subtly, mounted film—assured, assertive, but unfussy.
And, heck, I dont know. As I write about Sorry Angel—and, in the process, think about Sorry Angel—the more Im willing to forgive, and maybe better understand, its sudden, wrenching, slightly melodramatic ending. The film is, after all, about a crucial shifting point in gay history, capturing a moment that existed along a fault line, when one generation of gay men briefly scraped fingers with another before that bond, for so many, was lost forever. Maybe there is no graceful way to end that story; maybe abrupt is all there was in real life, and so all there can be in a film as personal and dialed-in as this.
Perhaps my dissatisfaction was intentional, Honoré insisting that there should be no closure. That audiences should walk out into a mostly cloudless French night—or some other night, somewhere else—and feel the swift, reeling magnitude of those departures. All the sex and conversation hurled into the past, the infinite quotidian details of so many lives snuffed out. Im realizing, I think, just how huge a story Sorry Angel might be telling, one that could never end well, unless we were somehow able to reach back and rewrite all that happened not so long ago. We cant, of course, and the sting of that cuts through the film in its final frames. Then, when youre home, and mulling it over some more, it haunts. And just maybe it encourages us to seek, both heedless and painfully aware, the pleasure and love of the films French title—and, yes, to run; if not quite fast, certainly as well and as fully as we can.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Cannes Film Festival 2018: The Must-See LooksRichard LawsonRichard Lawson is a columnist for Vanity Fair's Hollywood, reviewing film and television and covering entertainment news and gossip. He lives in New York City.