The Paris of Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel is a world of blue. You see it in the plush navy seats of the theater where Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), a middle-aged writer with HIV, first meets Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), a handsome, slightly aloof student in his early 20s. You see it in the streets where the two get to talking and on the walls of the hotel room where they first sleep together. You see it in the apartments they share with friends and lovers. You even see it in their clothes. But it’s in the film’s tone, too, as the setting is not just Paris, but Paris, 1993 in the midst of the AIDS crisis, a time when, especially for men such as Jacques, death was never too far from the mind. So while the French director’s latest carries a good measure of joy, it’s also infused with unshakable melancholy—a sadness for what was, and a regret for what could not be.
Inspired by Honoré’s own college-age romance with a writer with HIV, Sorry Angel draws directly from lived experience. In that respect, it resembles Robin Campillo’s BPM, another recent French drama set in 1990s Paris. But whereas that galvanizing portrait of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) put itself at the crossroads of the personal and the political, Honoré’s film stakes out different territory. A friend of Jacques once mentions the activist group, but no meetings ever occur on screen. And though the specter of disease hangs over Sorry Angel, much of its languid runtime simply observes the characters moving along their individual orbits.
Given the significant age gap between the lovers, they occupy vastly different social circles. Arthur spends his days with fellow students, on-off girlfriends, and hunky flings. Jacques, by contrast, rests on former lovers (a handsome hustler played by Quentin Thébault) and fast friends (particularly his older neighbor and confidante Mathieu, played by Denis Podalydès). Real tragedy bubbles beneath the surface, but what registers most vividly is the simple fact of people making love, taking pleasure in art, and wandering about with an insatiable lust for life.
Honoré stages much of Sorry Angel like a musical, which is unsurprising when one recalls that his Love Songs was inspired by the works of Jacques Demy (particularly The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg). Planimetric frames emphasize movement and color; sequences move to the rhythms of the film’s varied soundtrack (everything from Astrud Gilberto to MARRS to Anne Sylvestre); emotions swell in a way that feels larger than life. As in that earlier film, Honoré isn’t concerned with creating a historical portrait or a naturalistic time capsule. He’s after a sensuous, indefinable feeling—and to evoke it, he’s seeded the film with various personal touchstones, from the characters’ names (“like Rimbaud,” someone says to Arthur after he introduces himself) to movie posters of Boy Meets Girl (Leos Carax’s first feature) and Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last). No mere markers of nostalgia, these become the points about which the characters’ relationships eddy and flow.
From the lovers’ first meeting at a screening of Jane Campion’s The Piano, there’s a continual emphasis on art as a conduit for discourse: Arthur complains that the film is “a bit too storybook,” while Jacques chides him for not recognizing its worth. It seems no accident that Sorry Angel leaves itself open to similar charges. One could call it overly artificial, insufficiently political, or even naïvely romantic, but to do so would miss the core of Honoré’s intentions. Like his recent stage play The Idols, a work centered on six artists (including Demy) who succumbed to AIDS-related disease, Sorry Angel pays homage to those who lived through the height of the epidemic. He does so not by calling to mind political agitation, but by invoking cultural artifacts and the way these are passed from generation to generation. If BPM was about a group fighting for their lives, Sorry Angel is about another group doing their damnedest to make life worth living.
The film’s English title is appropriately wistful, but the French original—Plaire, aimer et courir vite, which translates roughly to “Please, love, and run fast”—offers a fuller sense of how Sorry Angel operates. What most impresses is how, with just a few disarming strokes—an inspired camera movement here, a disorienting edit there—Honoré is able to cut to the heart of the matter. (A scene set to the Cocteau Twins’ “I Wear Your Ring,” in which the camera glides through a hotel room window, practically trembles with anticipation.) This is apropos for a film that ambles and digresses, and whose final scene offers no lingering assurances, only solitude and uncertainty. True enough, Sorry Angel doesn’t always make you feel the weight of its presence—but as any good romance should, it makes you feel the sting of its absence.