[Review] Sorry Angel

I told myself I was done with gay movies that end in heartbreak. Bury your gays is a trope that’s run its course a long time ago in my personal lexicon. And yet when it’s done as brilliantly and with as much heart as it is in Sorry Angel, it can transcend those tropes to become something more than being about death. And before you think I’ve spoiled anything, Sorry Angel is about a relationship in the early 90s, in which one partner has AIDS. Happy endings just aren’t in the cards.

Even though a year is never announced, Sorry Angel subtly uses movie posters of The Piano and The Crying Game to tell us we’re probably in 1993. After a stylish montage that crisscrosses the lives of Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) and Arthur (Vincent Lacoste) and shows us that these two are destined to meet, we first focus on Jacques, sitting in a trendy Parisian restaurant, wryly eyeing a man and woman could at a table. It’s a quiet moment that speaks so much of the time and Jacques’ own secret desires.

He’s waiting for his date, a roguish hustler he’s been seeing off and on for over five years. In a Grindr-less world he’s a benched lover. An occasional hookup. He goes home alone, though, where his older friend Mathieu (Denis Podalydès) has been watching Jacques’ grade-school-aged son Loulou. Jacques a struggling writer. He’s produced some well-regarded plays but it’s obvious his finances are in a bad shape. As he reminisces with Mathieu, his ex Marco (Thomas Gonzalez) calls and leaves a long rambling message on his answering machine.

Marco’s in a bad way. He’s on the dying end of AIDS, has no where to go and wants to stay with Jaques, if possible. Like many things in Jacques’ life, Mathieu disapproves of this and warns him not to call Marco back. Meanwhile, in the small French town Rennes, Arthur is a Breton student in his twenties in a loveless relationship with his sorta-girlfriend Nadine (Adèle Wismes). At night, he secretly trolls the streets, cruising for anonymous male hookups. He’s looking for something else or maybe a reason to fully come out of the closet.

Jacques travels to Rennes to oversee the production of one of his plays and ducks into a movie theatre, where he catches the eye of Arthur and they begin a flirtatious exchange of barbs and questioning jokes. Their physical connection is immediate. They arrange a meeting for later that night, but Jacques is accosted by an actor and, with Arthur trailing them, she starts talking about Jacques’ HIV Positive status. A fact that doesn’t dissuade Arthur.

After a brief night together, Jacques is on his way back to Paris and the rest of story details their own separate journeys as they navigate their own inner turmoil. Their relationship grows through phone calls, erotic postcards and the written word. And while Arthur wants to jump in with two feet, Jacques keeps him at arm’s length, knowing what’s in store for his future.

Sorry Angel languishes in intimacy, both physical and emotional. The physical intimacy is filmed in such a very real way. It’s sensual and erotic. But it’s also playful and raucous. Sometimes it doesn’t end well, for one of the partners. It’s not perfect in ways that movie lovemaking tends to be. It’s imperfect and things go wrong. It achieves a very real intimacy and the characters’ chemistry really brings this relationship to life.

But more than the physical moments, its the emotional connection that really sells the love these two men have for each other. They share painful moments. Arthur talks about the day his father died and how he would keep expecting to see him come back and take him away. Jacques shares his past, trying to get ahead in the literary world, even if it meant sleeping with the wrong people. His parents are a bit unkind. And he tells Arthur that he was a boy who grew up to be a man who still thinks he’s a boy. And there is a youthful exuberance in both of their lives and relationships, even with the age difference.

But the pall of AIDS hangs heavy over the two. Jacques ex-lover Marco is dying and there’s such a kind, intimate moment where Jacques pulls him into his bathtub and holds him. It’s something Marco’s fragile, sore-covered body hasn’t experienced much recently. And it brought tears to my eyes. Even here, there’s a painfully tender and playful examination of two people who loved each other very much at one point. It’s so realistic and natural. It also showcases Jacques dichotomy perfectly. Pierre Deladonchamps imbues this frustrating character with so much life and warmth. He’s incredibly kind, but easy to enrage. Alternately flirtatious and cold. Infuriating and compassionate. Detached but completely open.

“I don’t know how to be with someone. I only know how to be alone,” he says at one point. Try as he might, though, the lovesick Arthur keeps worming his way back into his life and mind. He hangs out with Jacques son. Commiserates with Loulou’s mom.

Arthur tells tells him he wants everything but can be content with just a little. He reminds him how they could make a good life together.

“I can’t face a final romance,” Jacques replies.

And it breaks our hearts. Because we know both are true. They fit together perfectly. Arthur’s buoyancy and youthful naiveté balances out Jacques more restrained and cold demeanor. When they’re together, they just meld into one another, both physically and mentally. Sorry Angel, like Jacques himself, tries to stay detached when it comes to the AIDS epidemic. But it becomes impossible to ignore as the movie rolls into the third act and forces everyone to confront the deadly disease.

I could talk about the blue color scheme that infuses every facet of the story. Or talk about the technical side of it. But that isn’t what connected with me. It’s the characters and the very real way it showcased queer love at a time when queer love was so difficult. In one of the most gut-wrenching emotional moments (I’m tearing up as I write this), Marco tells Jacques, that he hurts too much to be in love and, more devastatingly, “They want us to die quietly.”

Yet the feelings it ultimately left is not one of sadness, though I did bawl multiple times. It’s about love. And the frivolous moments that define any relationships. The bumps in the road. The philosophical talks about love and life and literature. The tender playfulness.

Sorry Angel is a masterpiece that left me, like Jacques, full of conflicting thoughts and feelings. It shouldn’t be missed.