As any cinephile can tell you, there are some directors we love despite the fact they have never made a great film, but rather for the uniqueness of their voice and the hope that one day they will deliver on their potential. In the case of Christophe Honoré, his delightful “Love Songs” landed him on that list, even if no one would argue that the effervescent 2007 ménage-à-trois musical was a masterpiece, while every subsequent film has slightly chipped away at our affection.
Now, with “Sorry Angel” (whose English title represents an adorable, if totally arbitrary, translation of the French “Plaire, aimer et courir vite”), Honoré at last makes good on our faith in his talent, flashing back to 1993 to deliver a deeply personal queer romance that combines his best qualities as a filmmaker, even as it splits his identity between two men at opposite ends of life, HIV-positive writer Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps) and college-age reader Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), each falling in love with the idea of the other.
Though never explicitly stated by the film, which treats its impulsive follow-their-heart characters as realistic, three-dimensional people, the two parties in this romance may as well be twin halves of Honoré’s own personality: Arthur, the eager and open-minded Breton student slowly coming to grips with his identity; Jacques, a more cynical and weary soul resigned to the idea that he will never experience another meaningful connection.
Color-coding practically every costume and prop to the movie’s blue outlook, and glossing it all with a heavy coat of period pop (“Pump Up the Volume”) and opera music, Honoré isn’t merely navel-gazing here but seeking out an honest statement about romance, serving up a shaggy yet sincere portrait of modern love — albeit in an age before cell phones and hookup apps, when gay men cruised car parks after dark and let calls from past tricks go to their answering machines — that’s informed by his own life experience. It’s all very French (the characters inhale so many cigarettes, audiences may start to worry about secondary smoke), but also resembles a same-sex spin on the kind of talky, semi-confessional personal dramas that comprised the best years of Woody Allen’s career, from “Annie Hall” to “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (so monologue-y at times one almost wishes the characters would stop talking and go back to just smoking).
Honoré introduces Jacques and Arthur in an energetic, smash-cut montage of the two men’s worlds that, by the power of editing alone, conveys the sense that they are destined to be together. But “Sorry Angel” isn’t so simple-minded about their fates, and there’s nothing neat or tidy about the way the subsequent interactions play out. On a work-related trip to Rennes, where one of his plays is being produced, Jacques ducks into a cinema and notices Arthur in the dark. They have instant chemistry and casually agree to meet later. The tryst goes well enough that they keep in touch, but Jacques is stand-offish, as if protecting himself from getting attached. Meanwhile, Arthur feels just the opposite: Having spent his entire life in a small town, he’s eager to embrace being gay, and seizes his connection with Jacques as an excuse to move to Paris. And so, they can’t help but hurt each other (which, one supposes, is where the English title derives from).
Poignantly enough, “Sorry Angel” isn’t defined by the inevitable tragedy but rather by the way characters express love throughout. Honoré eschews traditional exposition, so it may take a bit of work for audiences to figure out either the chronology/geography (which skips around in place and time) or basic connections between characters (it’s not until nearly two hours in that Honoré introduces the mother of Jacques’ son or offers the slightest indication of why he’s a father). Though longer than necessary, the movie is never dull, and some of the best scenes don’t involve Arthur at all, but casual visits to Jacques’ best friend and neighbor Mathieu (Denis Podalydès, a respected stage actor who brings real gravitas to the film), late-night walks with the hustler (Quentin Thébault) to whom he turns for comfort, or the bathtub he shares with the dying ex-lover (Thomas Gonzalez) who needs him now more than ever.
Launched in competition at Cannes a full 11 years after “Love Songs,” Honoré’s film feels like a rejoinder to a handful of LGBT-themed movies to have screened at the festival during the intervening years. It gives Deladonchamps — the star of “Stranger by the Lake,” which translated the risk of anonymous sex in public spaces into a Hitchcockian thriller — a chance to go deep, exploring a contradictory and often self-defeating persona. It’s honest about nudity and the inherent clumsiness of gay sex, countering the porn-star fantasy peddled by “Blue Is the Warmest Color” with scenes in which partners fumble and disappoint one another in bed. And it arrives a year after the politically minded ACT UP drama “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” focusing not on the heroic early victims who took the virus seriously but on the countless others who allowed apathy to consume them.
These aren’t necessarily the “right” answers when it comes to telling a same-sex love story, but they clearly represent Honoré’s truth. For years, “gay movies” were practically a genre unto themselves, neatly conforming to one of three categories: stories about coming out, stories about unrequited love, and stories about the impact of AIDS. “Sorry Angel” succeeds in ticking all three boxes without falling into any one, and though it’s hardly the first to do so (most LGBT festivals are dedicated to representing a far more diverse range of experiences today), that it is considered a mainstream release in France and makes no apologies about the frank treatment of its characters’ sexuality represents a major stride in the treatment of gay relationships on-screen.