The agenda statement in this week’s New York Times op-ed “How Green Book Gives Short Shrift to a Gay Life” condemns that banal film, continuing the paper’s program to outline and influence the way people think about social issues — in this case, the on-screen depiction of gays. Green Book becomes another of those middle-brow films like Call Me by Your Name and Moonlight through which the mainstream media dictate a civil standard while ignoring more complicated and difficult films such as Sorry Angel, a politically challenging near-masterpiece that challenges gay political correctness.
Set in 1993, still the AIDS era, Sorry Angel opposes the Times’ presumption that gay men must be seen simplistically, as victims of conservative social policy and cruel fate. Director-writer Christophe Honoré dramatizes many complexities in the uneasy romance between middle-aged writer Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) and his young-adult paramour Arthur (Vincente Lacoste).
It’s a classic reader-meet-author seesaw. The bisexual experimentation of art-minded ingénu Arthur contrasts with the weary experience and intellectual advancement of Jacques. I scoffed at the idea of Jacques and Arthur first bonding over Jane Campion’s mawkish The Piano, but it’s just one way Honoré marks that period when the AIDS-era cultural response to sexual politics was ambitious yet less than perfect. (No mention of Tony Kushner’s Communist grand elegy Angels in America, but such signposts as a Suede rock concert, Warhol’s silkscreen for Fassbinder’s Querrelle, Prefab Sprout’s “Cars and Girls,” and Isabelle Huppert in Robert Wilson’s Parisian production of Orlando make an authentic, reverberant impression.)
Honoré connects life to art as in his previous films Love Songs, Man at Bath, Dans Paris. He avoids an idealizing agenda, which makes this film a richer experience than what op-ed pundit Lawrence Ware, an Africana-studies academic at Oklahoma State University, argues should be Green Book’s purpose. Pretending to address art, Ware actually asserts the Times’ social demands. His opening line — “I saw Green Book in a crowd of older white people, the precise audience this film had in mind” — uses race to shame the film’s audience.
But Honoré challenges gay and straight demographics through the complications in Jacques and Arthur’s relationship. Both men’s new excitement conflicts with old passions — Jacques’s dying ex-lover; Arthur’s disillusioned girlfriend; Jacques’s pre-teen son; Arthur’s shift away from old cronies. These deeply recognizable realities go beyond what that Times headline embarrassingly simplifies as “a gay life.”
As Jacques and Arthur learn about each other (through one’s illness, the other’s naïveté), Sorry Angel conjugates the politically loaded concept “gay” as “homosexual” and “queer” without fear of offending anyone who might be put off by both men’s appetitive sexuality and emotional dependence or those who would claim authority over its controversial depiction.
Each scene in Sorry Angel experiments in candor and lyricism as only French film culture makes possible, having produced such landmarks as the Cocteau-Genet Un Chant d’Amour, Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, Collard’s Savage Nights, Ducastel-Martineau’s My Life on Ice, Patrice Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. (On the other hand, Hollywood film culture is still stuck patronizing gay life in strict social-justice terms, as in the atrocious Love, Simon.) Scenes of Jacques’s on-off hook-ups with a feral hustler (Quentin Thebault) and Arthur’s nervy chess-game street cruising and confession about his insecurity are stunning — timeless. Sorry Angel continues Chéreau’s daring panorama of homosexual humanity with emphasis on moral consciousness, complete with the contradictions of desire and practicality.
Deladonchamps’s Jacques has an initially unlikable, cat-like solitary personality while Lacoste’s Arthur suggests precociousness minus Timothée Chalamet’s coy act. In one extraordinary segment, Honoré fluidly cuts between Jacques’s personal literary lecture (drawing subcultural links between Walt Whitman, W. H. Auden, and Allen Ginsberg) and Arthur imagining their sensual and intellectual rapport. The scope of this teacher-pupil sequence — the quintessential romance of urbane gay culture — shows political intelligence ahead of Commissar Ware’s timorous yet outrageous op-ed propaganda.
Sorry Angel stands apart from media manipulation of gay sentiment. Ware crossed a line when writing in his op-ed that “there are still many spaces in this country that black men who love other men cannot go without concern for their safety.” Honoré ignores that pettiness by detailing the significance of Jacques and Arthur’s symbiotic pairing. Sorry Angel’s original title — Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite (which translates as “To like, to Love, and Run Fast”) — suggests an unsentimental look at AIDS-era sexuality as immortalized in a remarkable pre-dawn scene of isolated Jacques and other habitués exiting a sex club. It transcends the media’s disingenuous acclaim for films such as Call Me by Your Name, which merely promote proper upper-middle-class sexual identity.
The hypocrisy of the mainstream media’s sexual politics was apparent in Ware’s complaint that Green Book “fails to treat this complex man [Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley] with the dignity he deserves . . . not exploring Shirley’s lived experience.” But that’s also the case with the trite Bohemian Rhapsody when Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury joins a bacchanal at an American truck stop but expresses maidenly shock to appease delicate PC sensibilities.
Honoré accounts for this hypocrisy — and transcends it — through Sorry Angel’s moral profundity and emotional honesty. Arthur’s straight friends respond to his pursuit of Jacques by quoting playwright Bernard Marie Koltès’s maxim on the cruelty of cutting off friendship (“the error of a gaze, the error of judgment”), and his anticipatory visit to the Montmartre Cemetery broadens the film’s eulogy for bygone gay-queer-homosexual lives so that it reproves contemporary political arrogance and merges with French cinema’s legacy of romantic and erotic sensitivity. No special pleading is necessary.
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