Strange Days: Christophe Honoré’s Multimedia Trilogy (Web Exclusive)
by David A. Gerstner
When Plaire, Aimer, Courir Vite [Sorry Angel] premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 as an Official Selection in Competition, filmmaker Christophe Honoré was asked if, following the success of Robin Campillo’s BPM: 120 battements (2017 Grand Prix Winner), a new film about AIDS was necessary. Honoré found the question curious and responded with another question: “Can we not talk about AIDS because another film has done so?” The cultural effect of AIDS and its impact on gay culture is, to be sure, difficult to “capture” in a single work of art. Honoré’s latest trilogy—the novel, Ton père (2017); the film, Plaire, Aimer, Courir Vite [Sorry Angel], 2018; and the play, Les Idoles (2018–19)—showcases precisely this effort to intervene on multiple fronts from his perspective as a French gay man.
Along with numerous accolades the press conferred on all three works, Ton père was a 2017 Prix Médicis finalist and Sorry Angel won the prestigious Louis Delluc Prize in 2018, when it became an official selection for competition at Cannes. Les Idoles has only recently opened on the Paris stage to rave reviews (including in The New York Times) after premiering in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2018. With the 2019 theatrical release of Sorry Angel in the United States (it had screened initially as part of the New York Film Festival in 2018), it is worth considering the film in relationship to the trilogy from which it derives.
As a filmmaker, novelist, and playwright, Honoré has said that creating a single work of art would limit his exploration of not only AIDS but also its impact on the French arts more generally. The trilogy, moreover, zeroes in on the impact AIDS has had on contemporary gay artists, especially those of Honoré’s generation born in the Seventies. Sorry Angel, therefore, holds center court in the trilogy that Honoré refers to as an “autoportrait.” In the three works—as he has in his previous novels, films, and theatrical productions—Honoré inserts himself in a history of French gay artists who, in this particular case, died from AIDS. Actor/director Cyril Collard (1957–1993), dramaturg Bernard-Marie Koltès (1948–1989), filmmaker Jacques Demy (1931–1990), writer and journalist Hervé Guilbert (1955–1991), theater director Jean-Luc Lagarce (1957–1995), and film critic Serge Daney (1944–1992) haunt the triptych.
When I met with Honoré in January after seeing his production of Les Idoles, he underscored that the trilogy as autoportrait is a “transmission.” In this context, “transmission” emphasizes movement: movement of and between bodies, movement of blood and bodily fluids, movement of creative energies and ideas. In short, “transmission” involves a giver and receiver, an affective performance that touches its participants. Indeed, as many critics have noted, the trilogy is a moving experience that draws the spectator into a sentient encounter with French gay culture and history as they are linked with sexual desire and death. In conceiving the project in this way, Honoré situates himself as artist and spectator through a first-person dialogue with the other French gay artists who inform his work. As he notes, in using this aesthetic device he joins in the conversations in which Hervé Guibert responded to Genet’s A Thief’s Journal which, in turn, responded to Gide, then to Cocteau, then to Proust, and so on. Art historian Michael Baxandall in Patterns of Intention tells us that the artist “acts reciprocally on his culture [so that the work of art] becomes a serial and continually self-redefining operation, permanent problem reformulation” pointing out that the artist acts “as a social being in cultural circumstances.” And it is the homophobic circumstances in France itself that triggered Honoré’s trilogy.
Formed in 2012 by Catholics and other extreme-right-wing members, the anti-gay family organization “La Manif Pour Tous” (The Protest for Everyone) rallied hard to prevent gay and lesbian marriage. The group also pushed vigorously against gay households in which children are raised (homoparentalité). Their loud and very public protests against gay families directly affronted Honoré’s life. As a gay father—and one who never shied away from claiming himself the “homosexual narrator” (as in his novel, Le livre pour enfants ), or from dealing with AIDS and gay men (as in both his novel and film, Tout contre Léo, 2002) and homoeroticism (as in his film, Homme au bain, 2010)—Honoré recognized an organization intent on curtailing choice not only for himself but also for an entire population of gay men and women. La Manif Pour Tous aimed their sights on containing sexual desire for all. Their movement jarred Honoré out of what he describes as his “blindness” to French homophobia.
The Trilogy’s Novel
After his awakening to the ugly homophobia that surrounded him, Honoré’s autoportrait-trilogy traces the contours of his life as a gay artist in that context. While we “hear” his voice across all three works (literally on stage in Les Idoles), his authorial voice within the autoportrait, echoing Baxandall, resonates “as a social being in cultural circumstances.” In his novel Ton père, the gay-father figure invokes Honoré’s experience to the extent that “Christophe Honoré, the gay father” shadows any French gay man who confronts chilling homophobia as he raises his child. The father figure in Ton pére is at once personal as he is communal—and does not bury his sexual desire, which Ton père openly acknowledges. Ton père instead delightfully, humorously, and erotically wanders through strategies that the father must navigate, on the one hand, to pick up his child at school while, on the other, necessarily sustain a life of sexual pleasure and creativity.
Ton père thus relaunches the “homosexual narrator”—“Honoré”—through freshly opened eyes. If “La Manif Pour Tous” was the impetus behind the trilogy in its placing homosexual desire and choice on the political chopping block, AIDS significantly permeates Honoré’s approach to the novel’s aesthetic and narrative design. In conjuring the names of artists and philosophers who died from AIDS—Koltès, Demy, Daney, as well Derek Jarman (1942-1994) and Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989)—Honoré incorporates actual photographs in the novel of the artists who have passed. Their portraits create a montage across the novel that intermingles with Honoré’s still-image photography presenting images of young guys undressing or street views from his apartment. At the outset of the trilogy, Ton père introduces the project as a multimedia event. The novel thus marks the trilogy’s task as one that reflects on the twenty-first century gay father as a figure necessarily imbued with the histories and imaginative forces of the fathers who came before him. Ton père, as a consequence, refuses the limitations of the novelistic medium or of any given genre. Honoré’s novelistic autoportrait introduces the concept of the trilogy, therefore, as a project of transmission committed to transformation across various media.
The Trilogy’s Film
The second installment in the trilogy, Sorry Angel, folds out from Ton père rather than standing as a distinct filmic entity. This is not to suggest that each of the three works must be viewed as a whole—each can and does stand on its own. Yet, by looking at the three as movable and overlapping screens within screens or texts within texts, Honoré’s concept may be more fully appreciated.
From the novel and the still photos it incorporates, Honoré turns to cinema, where AIDS and sexual desire intersect in complex ways. Sorry Angel follows the undergraduate years of a young gay man who studies at the University of Rennes—the campus where Honoré studied and where he found outlets for homosexual pleasure and, at the same time, where his creative energies developed. Reading books, going to the cinema and college pubs, and visiting the town’s gay cruising sites became his wellspring of self-knowledge, just as they would for any gay student. Not unlike Honoré, Arthur (Vincent Lacoste) in Sorry Angel pursues sexual desire through the art that surrounds him at university. Books, film, and theater mix intimately as critical components to Arthur’s homoerotic pleasures and his ambition to become a writer. The erotic heart of Sorry Angel, therefore, hovers around the process through which the arts—especially literature—give life to desire.
Arthur in fact meets the well-known, older, Parisian author and gay father, Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) at the movies in Rennes, where Jacques is in town to direct a play. In the movie theater, the two men make eye contact during a screening of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993)—an appropriate film as backdrop for the encounter since Sorry Angel brings Eros and Art into constant play, as Campion does when uniting a woman’s sexual desire with her beloved art form of music. The chance meeting in the cinema is doubly charged for Arthur and Jacques because the budding young writer and his older professional counterpart discover a profound connection only to be undercut by Jacques’s HIV-status. Eros and Thanatos commence with the movies.
The stakes for “transmission” are heightened in Sorry Angel since the love that develops between Arthur and Jacques has no future other than death. But, for Honoré, the tragedy that is AIDS and the love it forestalls necessarily drive gay men to translate loss into creative and political practice (in whatever form that takes). It is, of course, nothing new to say that an artist is influenced by deceased authors who have come before. One of Honoré’s treasured literary figures, J. D. Salinger, once asserted, “A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Proust, O’Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won’t name any living writers. I don’t think it’s right.” In calling out the names of those who have passed, Salinger—like Honoré—draws upon the creative impulses of the dead to infuse their own work as the still living. The artist cannot escape the dead or the historical leavings in their wake. During the height of AIDS activism, gay artists and intellectuals were remembered for re-energizing the (recent and not-so-recent) dead through aesthetic means (think David Wojnarowicz’s conjuring of Rimbaud, or Douglas Crimp’s theoretical fusing of “mourning and militancy”). And, like Salinger, Honoré “call[s] out in a loud voice” those artists he loves. “I believe,” Honoré has said in a Film Comment interview, “that when you write a book or make a movie, the people you would like to touch first and foremost are the people who made you want to write books or make movies.”
But for gay men, another set of troubling questions about the rapid and premature death of so many remain. What might these artists have accomplished? What might have we learned from their responses to our contemporary world? What would we have seen? Heard? Re-envisioned? What might Koltès, Guibert, Demy, Foucault, Jarman, Mapplethorpe, Marlon Riggs, and Keith Haring have given to an eager and younger generation of gay men? Their deaths proved to be a rupture all the more violent for artists, intellectuals, philosophers, and activists because unlike Foucault, who was able to march with Genet to protest prison conditions, or Keith Haring, who was able to hang out and watch movies with Andy Warhol, gay men of Honoré’s generation were not afforded these intimate encounters. They can only communicate with their elders through imagination. “I would have liked for my first film to be at a film festival,” Honoré in Film Comment reflects, “where I came across Jacques Demy and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Welcome little guy!’” In returning to 1993 Rennes, Honoré’s Sorry Angel evokes the enthusiasm of gay youth in which the relationship between a famous older writer and a developing younger writer reimagines his own longed-for real-life encounter.
In this way, Sorry Angel investigates a critical moment during the rise of AIDS. The disease psychologically and emotionally infiltrated Honoré’s generation in ways quite different from those born ten years earlier. The film looks at a precise time and place in which a complicated transgenerational relationship takes place. Arthur, in his early twenties, and Jacques, in his mid-thirties, embody this phenomenon. But they also figure a larger set of circumstances present in the early Nineties. The generation of gay men in their twenties during the Eighties was moved to the forefront of urgent political activism when mourning the loss of friends and lovers during an endless parade of death. Educating one another about “safe sex” and the science of the virus in their bodies formed a quick—albeit high—learning curve. By the early Nineties, failed drug regimens to combat HIV appeared regularly and thousands perished. At the same time, the campaign by AIDS activists around condoms and “safe sex” benefitted a new generation of gay men. In many ways, the early Nineties was an awkward and unsettling period to be a young gay man. Sexual desire and practice would not be the same for this group as it had been for the prior generation. Skin-to-skin pleasure was extinguished. Sex was framed by new rules, uncertainty, and anxiety. But desire is not equal to sex alone.
In Sorry Angel, Honoré plays out the disjointed transgenerational homosexual experience in which love between men is short circuited at a critical point in the history of AIDS. On the one hand, the film is distinct from James Ivory’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), in which pre-AIDS transgenerational love between men is romanticized through idyllic artistic traditions. On the other hand, Honoré’s film differs from Vincent Gagliostro’s After Louis (2017), in which the film’s transgenerational relationship recounts a politically and aesthetically complex representation of love between men some twenty years after the full thrust of AIDS art and activism. Because Sorry Angel locates its narrative on the hinge between these two periods, Honoré trains his lens on a transitional moment. If Call Me and After Louie take place during clearly defined periods in gay history—pre-AIDS awareness and post-AIDS activism—both films deal in nostalgia (the latter politically; the former not so much). Sorry Angel occurs somewhere in between. Honoré’s film takes stock of a moment of unknowingness in which the effect of AIDS cannot be cordoned off as “past” or “post.” For Honoré, 1993 is a peculiar and vexed moment for homosexuality.
When Sorry Angel draws to its close, Arthur is sitting near a public telephone in Rennes, awaiting Jacques’s call from Paris. It’s the call that never arrives because Jacques has succumbed to his illness. In that moment—1993—starry-eyed Arthur anticipates a future. It is a future in which Arthur looks forward to a range of hopes and dreams as a writer and gay man. At that moment, however, the gay man as artist begins his young career amidst the many around him who are transitioning to death.
Honoré, in 1993, also waited hopefully. While doing so, he came upon another gay artist who importantly influenced the trilogy.
The Trilogy’s Play
When I first heard the English translation for Plaire, Aimer, Courir Vite (Sorry Angel), I was disappointed. In fact, when Honoré first conceived the film, its working title was Plaire, Baiser, Courir Vite (To Please, To Fuck, To Run Fast). It is a title, to my mind, that catches Honoré’s playful mischievousness. The French title that finally prevailed nevertheless maintained the spirit of the work without annoying the censors. When I saw the production of Les Idoles at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris, I rethought my take on the English translation of Plaire. Prompting my change of mind is what happens onstage when the curtain raises on this, the third part of the trilogy.
A figure not yet mentioned, though one who played a significant role in Honoré’s realization of the trilogy, is choreographer Dominique Bagouet (1951–1992). Honoré first encountered Bagouet’s work when, as a student in Rennes, he traveled to Paris to explore its various art worlds and gay scene. He attended a dance performance of Jours étranges (Strange Days, 1990) and was taken with Bagouet’s use of The Doors for the work’s soundtrack. The choreographer wished to evoke his immersive experiences during the late Sixties with the American band’s unique sound. “I remember these sort of ‘Beatnik nights’ we used to spend lulled by Jim Morrison’s warm voice,” Bagouet recounts. “The atmosphere of these ‘strange days’ quite correspond to the distress of our adolescence which was looking for its own values in what became now a kind of mythology. This age also experienced ill-defined and obscure desires of revolt against norms and established codes.”
Bagouet’s concept immediately took hold for Honoré. He was taken with Jours étranges’s remarkable choreography in which dancers perform between staged silences and Morrison’s mellifluous voice. Selected tracks from the Strange Days album (“Strange Days,” “I Can’t See Your Face in My Mind,” and “When the Music’s Over”) give life to the dancers as they joyfully bounce around the stage, sensually envelop one another, and flutter their arms upward as if floating like angels. The dancing angels who appear toward the end of Bagouet’s dance move effortlessly to “When the Music’s Over.” It is this particular angelic hovering and The Doors’ number that echoes in Les Idoles. The play’s opening is layered with the dancing angels and Morrison’s singing, while Honoré’s own voice is heard as he recalls the Sunday in 1993 Paris when he first saw Bagouet’s Jours étranges.
In his notes to the play, Honoré explains that his gay role models who died from AIDS invariably instructed his life, his loves, and his creativity. In experiencing their loss as well as the hope they left behind, “How,” he asks, “do we dance now?” As the third part of the trilogy, Les Idoles wrestles with this question by restaging life for his idols: filmmaker Cyril Collard, Hervé Guibert, Jean-Luc Lagarce, Serge Daney, Bernard-Marie Koltès, and Jacques Demy. The play is not simply hagiography. Honoré does not shy away from the problematic histories his idols have with expressing their homosexuality (Demy’s closeted history kept secure by his wife Agnès Varda; Lagarce’s admiration for the gay xenophobe Renaud Camus; Collard’s rather large if charming ego). American figures such as Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor are equally spotlighted for their significance while questioned for their awkward assertions about AIDS, especially in the French context.
But Honoré loves his gay French fathers. They are emotional, funny, intelligent, and giving. They are not short on opinions about how to deal with the politics of AIDS or, in fact, what “gay” ultimately means. They debate intensely such gay identities such as “top,” “bottom,” and “versatile.” “Versatile,” in particular, throws the group into turmoil as they try to understand just exactly what it means. Fickle? Boring? Unstable? In this way, Honoré—as the omniscient voice in the room—devilishly toys with his idols’ peccadillos. For instance, Demy (embodied by Marlène Saldana) strolls the stage in a fur coat reviving Dominique Sanda’s performance in his film, Une chambre en ville (1982). When Demy decides it’s time to perform on Honoré’s stage—and he will perform dramatically as many times as he cowers in the corners of the stage—he sings and dances to “Les chansons d’un jour été” from Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). As Demy’s joyous enthusiasm for his fabulous film and music intensify, we quickly become aware that Saldana wears absolutely nothing underneath her giant fur coat. Saldana’s voluptuous body beautifully displays itself as the coat opens during her turns and flips on stage. She revels in her liberated body that will nonetheless rewrap itself at the end of her performance. Saldana’s dance fully expresses Demy’s complicated relationship to his homosexuality.
This dance is but one example of homage in Les Idoles, which functions as an aesthetic trope in keeping with his concept of “transmission.” As I’ve written elsewhere, Honoré’s turn on homage is a queer rewriting, a form of camp in which to camp is a transformative act, at once loving yet critical. If Honoré’s work is heavy with homage, it is because he recognizes his debt to a history of artists, as well as his responsibility to critically transition their work into concepts of his own. Hence, Les Idoles transforms gender (Guibert is played by Marina Foïs while Demy is performed by Saldana). Genres are also transformed as musical tropes, drama, docu-fiction, and comedy overlap. Koltès own desire to be transformed into his idol—John Travolta—takes place on stage through his compatriots’ offering to re-create the making of Saturday Night Fever (1977). Directed on stage by, of course, Cyril Collard and co-starring Serge Daney, Honoré recreates the making of the film. While a camera shoots live Koltès’s and Daney’s re-enactments of the film, a prerecorded version of their very same performance is seen from a different angle on an overhead screen. Screens transition into other screens, bodies transition into other bodies, and the past transitions into the present. It’s a dazzling and overwhelming conceptualization of what Honoré calls “transmission.” And as with all provocative camp, there is more.
With the theatrical setting, Honoré is provided another sensorial tool refused the other trilogy segments: smell. Although he consistently reaches to incorporate odors into his other works through language and cinematic technique, the theater is the one medium that allows Honoré to deeply involve the spectator’s multiple senses. If the figures on stage recall in words the smell of fried fish in Foucault’s apartment (Guibert), or a boy’s cum that “smells of warm rain” (Koltès), they literally bring smell into the performance. From its outset, Les Idoles opens with the actors lighting their cigarettes as they flutter onto the stage. The smell of smoke saturates the theater just as it surely filled the world of the figures resurrected on stage. Then, while Saturday Night Fever is (re)filmed, Demy offers his services as the set’s caterer. As the shooting unfolds, the director now transitions into a cook who whips up the Breton specialty—crêpes. The smell of frying dough lingers throughout the theater as cast and crew for Saturday Night Fever imbibe Demy’s delightfully prepared snack. Spectators for Les Idoles are treated sensually on so many fronts.
Les Idoles brings to a close the project that Honoré has brewed for more than twenty years. It took that many years, he has said, to digest the enormity of its subject matter and material. The trilogy does not deliver a complete or satisfactory recounting of lives lost because of AIDS. It does not achieve an explanation of why some men shy away from expressing their homosexuality either in their art or as men with children. It does not punish the political or artistic decisions made by those living during the most intense years of the AIDS pandemic. Instead, the trilogy fits snuggly within Honoré’s term for his work as an artist: “incomplete.” If, recalling Baxandall’s comments that the artist employs upon his or her culture and history “a serial and continually self-redefining operation, permanent problem reformulation,” we give not only space to Honoré’s re-imaginings but we also open ourselves to a process of creativity in order to reimagine our own queer lives.
Sorry Angel is distributed in the United States by Strand Releasing.
David A. Gerstner, Professor of Cinema Studies at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, has published widely on American, French, and Queer Cinemas. His most recent work, co-authored with Julien Nahmiuas, is Cristophe Honoré: A Critical Introduction (Wayne State University Press).
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 2