Blue really is the warmest color in “Sorry Angel,” a superbly acted and swooningly intelligent romance between two men looking at life and love in opposite directions. But it is also the coolest color, the brightest, the darkest and by far the most prominent.
Like an early 20th-century Picasso of 21st-century French cinema, the writer-director Christophe Honoré allows shades of blue to saturate every frame. It seeps into the characters’ clothes and bedrooms, and also the tiled walls of a bathroom where one grievously ill man, Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), poignantly cradles another in the tub. A blue glow suffuses the medical clinic where Jacques discreetly snaps a photo of a handsome young stranger smoking nearby, stealing a precious moment of beauty from a world shrouded in death.
You might say that Honoré does something similar throughout. Like the excellent 2017 French drama “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” though with a less activist focus, “Sorry Angel” offers a moving flashback to the 1990s, a time when communities decimated by AIDS were at last finding sources of support and resistance. And what you are likely to remember from this movie is not just its heartache but its puckish wit, its soigné visuals and its ardent sensuality, all of which feel like armaments against the reflexive dourness and sentimentality that mar so many dramas of terminal illness. Blue, often associated with sadness, is here recoded as a color of joy, lust and defiant possibility.
The English title aptly conveys the movie’s dexterous tone, which is by turns tender, wistful and oddly insouciant. (It is also a delightful non-translation of the French one, “Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite,” which means “To Please, Love and Run Fast.”) Fittingly, the story divides its attention and sensibility between two protagonists: Jacques, a 35-year-old Parisian novelist facing his own mortality, and Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), a 22-year-old college student from Rennes, Brittany, who is just beginning to explore, and enjoy, his attraction to men.
It’s clear from the spirited opening-credits montage, which smashes together images of Jacques, Arthur and their respective skylines, that the men’s paths are destined to converge. The gently crisscrossing narrative doesn’t feel schematic so much as sensible, especially as it steers the characters toward an unusually delightful meet-cute. By the time Jacques pays a work visit to Rennes and spies Arthur in a movie theater showing Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” their quick, indelible exchange of glances — and their subsequent exchange of wits and pleasantries — bears out everything we already know about them.
For Jacques, Arthur’s arrival is both a thrill and an inconvenience. His writing and his finances have dried up. He has a young son, Loulou (Tristan Farge), who faces the prospect of his father’s death with devastating calm. Jacques’ loyal, exasperated friend Mathieu (a terrific Denis Podalydès) disapproves of his decision to look after an ex-lover, Marco (Thomas Gonzalez), who is even sicker than Jacques is. Taking on a new boyfriend doesn’t seem a much wiser course of action.
And “Sorry Angel,” in its own wisdom, is in no hurry to accelerate Jacques and Arthur’s heady first encounter into a full-fledged romance. Their differences in age, experience and outlook make the prospect of a deeper commitment both improbable and exciting. If Arthur seems hesitant at first, it has less to do with Jacques’ HIV diagnosis than with his own gradual sexual awakening: He has a girlfriend (Adèle Wismes) to whom he pays little attention, preferring to cruise for men after dark.
But although Arthur forges an immediate physical bond with Jacques, the emotional and intellectual contours of their relationship take longer to reveal themselves. And Honoré, whose style is playful, erudite and unrepentantly French, gives their drawn-out courtship a teasing, scholarly frisson. Arthur is a lover of literature himself, and one of the movie’s funniest and most revealing scenes finds Jacques schooling him over the phone on W.H. Auden, Chester Kallman and Christopher Isherwood, crucial touchstones for a life of the mind as well as the flesh.
At one point during that conversation, Honoré artificially collapses the distance between Jacques and Arthur, one of a few throwaway flourishes that give clever visual description to their feelings. In some of his earlier pictures, including “Dans Paris” and “Love Songs,” the director infused his characters’ emotional and sexual confusion with a bracing, sometimes show-offy stylistic vigor, proudly announcing himself as a disciple of the French New Wave. Honoré is still a consummate cinephile — at one point, someone visits François Truffaut’s grave — but rather than piling on the mannerist tics, he seems content to sit back and let his actors do the heavy lifting.
Deladonchamps came to international attention as the handsome young star of Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake,” a rather more Hitchcockian treatise on death and gay desire. The actor bares less of himself physically here — Honoré’s gaze, while uninhibited, is far from clinical — but a great deal more of himself emotionally. In scene after scene, he makes Jacques a charming, needling contradiction, by turns engaged and distant, warmly inviting and coolly self-analyzing. He captures the mercurial fluctuations of a brilliant intellect and a restless, often agitated mind.
Next to Jacques and his sharply planed features, Arthur seems unformed, even putty-like in his youthfulness. And Lacoste makes him no less rewarding a camera subject, with an elastic physicality and a mischievous little half-smile that at times suggest the makings of a great silent-screen clown. But he’s also a beautifully expressive actor, giving Arthur an outwardly brash, self-assured demeanor that doesn’t hide his inner vulnerability so much as coexist alongside it.
And coexistence, whether it means straddling generational differences or holding conflicting feelings side-by-side, is in many ways the grand theme of “Sorry Angel.” The movie is premised on its own surprising contradictions: It’s urgent but digressive, romantic yet pragmatic, and its finest moments feel both sculpted and improvised. It’s as if love were a calculation of fate and something happily, casually stumbled upon — and fully appreciated, perhaps, only with the knowledge that it’s about to be wrested away.
French dialogue with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles