Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 01, 2018 8:54 am 
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Gay in France in the age of AIDS

Sorry Angel was released in French theaters 10 May 2018 with its Cannes premiere and received a very high rating from French critics (AlloCiné 4.2).This is Honoré's most overtly autobiographical film yet, in which he returns to what he has called "les jours sinistres et terrifiants" - the grim and terrifying days - of his youth, the two last decades of the previous century. This is the story of young gay man who comes to Paris from the provinces to become a filmmaker. The director, who later learned he was HIV-positive, steps aside from his glamorous muse Louis Garrel here, shifting to the young comic actor (doing serious this time), Vincent Lacoste, as his alter ego. This is Honoré's eleventh feature and he has tried a variety of things, mostly personal, but never overtly gay, or confronting the harsh world of AIDS in the Nineties before. There is ample poetry and more humor, but a different tone and braver stance than he has previously achieved - perhaps a new maturity, certainly a greater honesty. Mostly a series of big, standalone set pieces separated by memorably used music, Sorry Angel is a lot to take in. It is a contrast, perhaps consciously so, to Robin Campillo's tumultuous AIDS and ACT UP-FRANCE film, BPM (Beats Per Minute) - NYFF 2017. This is a French picture of coming of age in the Nineties world of AIDS, for sure, but a personal and private not an activist one. There is no ACT UP scene, little talk of activism.

He really has two other alter egos in the film, himself at two other, later stages of life, and they are all connected, though tenuously, somewhat sadly, in a narrative of frustrated love. Besides the young Arthur Prigent (Lacoste), who decides to leave Rennes, in Brittany, to try his fortune writing and making films in Paris, there is Jacques Tondelli (Pierre Deladonchamps of Stranger by the Lake - NYFF 2013), a thirty-something novelist and playwright who has AIDS. He and Arthur cruise each other in a cinema in Rennes showing Joan Campion's The Piano Player. Pierre is there momentarily for the production of a play. Arthur is smitten.

The third, oldest alter ego is Mathieu (film actor and Comédie-Française member Denis Podalydès), Pierre's neighbor, an Honoré of an age he has yet to reach, a character no doubt smitten by Pierre too, but the two are just intimate friends. For much of the film Pierre and Arthur aren't together, or even in the same town. But when Arthur moves to Paris they are, even though Pierre tries to avoid Arthur, because by then he has become seriously ill, and wants to avoid another love affair, because now it is too late. He tries to have Mathieu lie to Arthur and say he's out of town, but he hasn't the heart. And Arthur, touchingly, stays around, undeterred by Pierre's illness. Honoré spares us the grimmer aspects of AIDS illness; Pierre never stops looking good, or having well-coiffed hair. But the physical is not glamorized: as the Les Inrocks reviewer Serge Kaganski says, Honoré excels here at showing the "intriguing osmosis between the sweetness of sex and its crudity," and this is one of the film's memorable aspects. Honoré is boldly willing to, as Peter Debruge says in his Cannes Variety review, admit the "inherent clumsiness of gay sex," willing to show gay men who "fumble and disappoint one another in bed."

Kaganski calls this Honoré's most successful film since Love Songs (]R-V 2008). It does strike a remarkable balance between the demanding and the mainstream, as Kaganski says. There is ugliness, intelligence, charm, wit, and a portrait of an era that avoids generalization or cliché.

The film jumps around a bit in time, more than halfway through showing Arthur as running a little summer camp for kids, the playful cruising scene of him and Pierre in the cinema early on. In a bittersweet and playful scene Arthur tells his best friends he is moving to Paris. When he does come and Pierre tries to hide from him but then can't, Mathieu reports to Pierre that Arthur's first projects are to visit the Pompidou Museum (it shows him doing so) and attend an ACT UP meeting - which to him, Mathieu snidely says, may be something exotic "like visiting the catacombs." Pierre tries to avoid the dire case of his now dying ex-lover Marco (Thomas Gonzalez), but has two sensual moments with the two of them in the bath, one real, one imaginary.

Vincent Lacoste is a funny guy. When he appears on the popular French show "On n'est pas couché" people seem to start laughing before he even opens his mouth, and he has an infectious laugh himself. Here, he gets to display a sweet, humane, loving side and extend his chops. But his good humor is felt too, and needed in a story clouded by the tragedies of gay AIDS deaths or their imminence. It's an effort of the film to avoid being gloomy or maudlin while remaining honest. On the whole Honoré skillfully steers in between. Deladonchamps is a somewhat distant, neutral actor, partly because he is so brave in representing the unflattering side of his characters. Podalydès' character is low-keyed and relatively minor (if sometimes hilarious). This makes the naive, generous Arthur come forward even though he's rarely at the center of the action, and we never see him do whatever he does, write, make films, though we do see that he has had a girlfriend, Nadine (Adèle Wismes), just as Jacques has a son, Loulou (Tristan Farge), and a friendly relationship with Loulou's mother (Sophie Letourneur), whom he shares Loulou with 50-50. This makes Sorry Angel as indirect in some ways as Honoré's more beautiful, imaginary films like Love Songs, Dans Paris, or La belle personne, which are partly celebrations of Louis Garrel, a dreamy, straight actor playing straight roles less directly connected to Honoré's own life than the leads here. Nonetheless Sorry Angel is a kind of "coming out" for him, if far from militant or confessional. There are moments of physicality and sex that are pretty blunt, without being graphic.

It's rather remarkable that Honoré brings all these contrasting elements and moods together into an artistic whole, with some sequences that show his innate cinematic gifts, and particularly a splendid sense of how to use music in a film, as well as a rich background of French pop of the Nineties local audiences will best appreciate. In the end though, on first viewing, it was hard to get my head around it all, or know what to feel. But it still impressed, and my admiration for Honoré remains as strong as ever.

Honoré also writes novels and plays (little known to anglophone fans), and a related theater piece by him, Les Idoles, about notable men who died of AIDS in the Eighties and Nineties, was recently presented at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris.

Sorry Angel/Plaire, aimer et courir vite, 132 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes, May 2018. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival, 30 Sept. 2018. To be distributed in the US by Strand. Metascore 75 (now, Aug. 2019, 73). As mentioned, French critical rating much higher, AlloCiné 4.2 (based on 20 reviews). At the NYFF public screening, Lacoste and Honoré were present for a Q&A, and Lacoste did not fail to show his fey humor, or Honoré his eloquence and honesty.

At Feb. 2019 NY release, Armond White published a thorough and knowledgeable and positive review of this film in National Review as "a politically challenging near-masterpiece that challenges gay political correctness." There were admirable positive reviews in the Los Angeles Times by Justin Chang, The Telegraph by Robbie Collin, and Sight and Sound by Jonathan Romney.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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