From now through October, Film Misery will be covering the 56th New York Film Festival with regular dispatches on the films screened there.
Likely by accident, Day Two of this year’s festival ended up featuring two complex depictions of queer masculinity.The more overt and affectionate of the two, Christopher Honore’s Sorry Angel (★★★★), is so thrilling because of all the personable nuances it adds to what’s ultimately a blissfully simple story. It’s a long-distance romance, but one where that distance never feels like an impediment or trite obstacle. It’s an AIDS-era film where there isn’t an assumed empathy between queer people, and gay men can still hold their privilege over others. It’s a slightly cross-generational love story where a marginal age difference can still present a harsh ideological divide between mutually enamored lovers.
Set in 1993, during roughly the same period as last year’s 120 BPM, Honore’s film feels adjacent to the AIDS epidemic, but not emphatically part of it. When Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), the younger of the two lovers, considers going to an ACT UP meeting, his older counterpart Jacques (Stranger by the Lake‘s Pierre Deladonchamps) can’t help cynically rolling his eyes. While that exchange sums up the film’s conflict of perspectives, Arthur’s and Jacques’ lives aren’t so wildly different. They both casually hook up with men; Jacques for comfort, Arthur for fresh experience. They’re both managing relationships with their exes; Jacques struggles with unresolved feelings for his dying ex Marco (Thomas Gonzales), while Arthur’s honestly communicating with former girlfriend Nadine (Adele Wismes). There are parallel struggles that give them avenues for empathy with each other.
Their romance blooms over stolen time, when their lives or jobs occasion them to cross paths. After they meet in a movie theater in Brittany, where Arthur lives, they spend the night walking around, fruitlessly looking for somewhere to spend the night. They’ll be on the phone, so intimately in sync with each other that the camera bridges the space between them, but the moment Jacques says something insensitive, that intimacy is cut off. Their relationship is touch and go, blissful when they’re together, but when they’re apart, they both get stuck in their own heads. Arthur naively builds up their relationship in his head, while Jacques wallows in the seeming death sentence of his AIDS diagnosis.
Shot in a cool blue tone that captures both delight and melancholy, the film feels like an atmosphere conjured specifically for Arthur & Jacques’ diverging perspectives to harmoniously coexist for a time. It doesn’t last, as Jacques’ depression increasingly consumes his life, particularly after a bitter encounter with Marco where Jacques insensitively cuts off each of his ex’s attempts at closure. “Jacques compartmentalizes his life,” his son’s mother tells Arthur, and that may be the tragic difference between the two lovers. Jacques’ built his life around denial, while Arthur yearns for honest communication at every turn. Their relationship is tender, implausible, affable and almost destined not to last. It’s not because of the era or the epidemic. It’s because the same life that can rapturously reward one of us can also bitterly break another down.
You couldn’t ask for a more jarring comedown from the sweet, soft heartache of Sorry Angel than messy, embittered whirlwind chaos of Orson Welles’ unearthed and resuscitated final film, The Other Side of the Wind (★★★★1/2). Even Welles’ most obsessive fans may be hostile to this cinematic anomaly, marred by legal and financial difficulties and finished over 30 years after its director’s death. It feels like a perfect storm for Welles’ fans and skeptics to gang up against him, the former seeing it as lost without its creator, the latter as doomed because of that creator’s toxic hubris. Despite waiting all these years, for many The Other Side of the Wind will begrudgingly remain a mystery.
In some ways, though, it feels it was always meant to arrive this way; tattered, chaotic, obsessively pieced together by Welles’ remaining disciples. What’s more, it’s a historically unfinished film *about* an unfinished film by an immensely revered and egotistical auteur, reconstructed after his death by his protege. Of course Welles denied it being auto-biographical, and finally seeing the film you understand why: Because the onscreen personification of his mythos is a lascivious, self-obsessed asshole, who may be using his repulsively macho behavior to bury the homoerotic desires that he so frankly depicts onscreen. Given this scathing, nasty self-inquiry, the fact that Welles’ final film was completed without him feels like a righteous cosmic middle finger to obsessive auteur.
The director is Jake Hannaford (John Huston), referred to as “the Ernest Hemingway of the cinema,” big game hunting and all. His protege is Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), who has eclipsed his mentor commercially and is the only person Jake won’t spout demeaning vitriol at. And, like the similarly manic look at indulgent celebrity Her Smell, Hannaford’s got an immense posse of disciples, journalist, documentarians and producers swarming around him during a publicity sceenings of the incomplete titular film-within-a-film. It’s not a premiere or celebration so much as a scandalous cry for help.
“Jake’s just making it up as he goes along,” a skeptical producer says. “He’s done it before”, loyal follower Billy Boyle (Norman Foster, a naively endearing delight) replies. Just as the frantic editing make feels like Welles’ footage is often at risk of careening off the reel, Hannaford’s own recklessly improvisatory streak seems to be running dry. When we do see his film, a silent, experimental sexploitation film, the editing feels slightly calmer, if still unfocused & indiscernible. When someone complains that the reels are out of order, the projectionist replies “Does it even matter?” Beautiful & provocative as Hannaford’s (and Welles’) psycho-sexual wide-screen compositions are, it’s clear his attempted Hollywood comeback is an inscrutible, misogynistic mess.
Not that Jake need make a film to express that. He recruits dwarfs to light off fireworks & calls his Native American actress (Oja Codar, also co-writer) “Pocahontas,” an unsettling & unintended testament to how little this repulsive behavior has changed in the forty years since. As the party dissolves into madness, Welles switches primarily to black-and-white, as though we’re watching a live-broadcasted Hollywood tragedy, Hannaford’s decline streamed to the masses. By the end, Welles is switching so haphazardly between verite B&W and pulpy, broiling color that he develops a kind of intimate sensual shorthand for how chaotically the party can devolve into a grandiose festival of self-immolation.
The queer content is what adds a crucial element of tragedy that, without which, the film would frankly rote without. As Hannaford drinks himself into oblivion & avoids being confronted about the desires beneath his aggrandizing verbal bullshit, the reveal of attraction to his androgynous-looking leading man risks feeling like an explanation or excuse for his gross behavior. It’s thanks to Huston’s rabid, relentless performance – a spiritual predecessor to Daniel Day Lewis’ feral, vicious Daniel Plainview – that it rarely feels that way.
Bogdanovich and Foster’s characters, too, display two different kinds of homo-social intimacy. While Otterlake’s growing out of Hannaford, Foster’s left lagging loyally behind, reduced into a giddy juvenile by his devotion Hannaford. By the end, The Other Side of the Wind reveals the consequences of unrequited devotion, when a man demands love and attention while never knowing the joy of giving it in return. At the end of his career, was that what was most on Welles’ mind? How useful can that worship be if you die without devoting yourself to anything?