At first glance, Jacques Tondelli (Pierre Deladonchamps) seems to enjoy an unmoored, cushy life in early 1990s Paris. And the early 1990s Paris Christophe Honoré evokes in this film looks to be a good place for that.
We are introduced to Jacques alone at an elegant bistro, giving a pleasant but slightly ironical glance at a male-female couple sitting nearby. In his late 30s, he’s dressed stylishly, mostly in blue, a color that suffuses the film, subtly, as has been Honoré’s customary light-touch going back to “Dans Paris” (2006) and “Love Songs” (2007). Soon Jacques’s date arrives: a shabbily dressed young hustler. And it clearly amuses the self-assured Jacques to dine with the fellow in such an upscale environment.
Back at his apartment, Jacques commiserates with an older friend, Mathieu (Denis Podalydès). Jacques’s writing is going poorly, his finances are bad. Little to do but hang out and get high with his pal, although steps are taken not to disturb Jacques’s grade-school-age son, Loulou.
As it peels Jacques like an onion, “Sorry Angel” also develops, in a loping, unhurried style, the narrative of a love affair that is never truly allowed to happen.
The romance ignites when Jacques travels to the small French city of Rennes to oversee a production of one of his plays, an endeavor in which he has little interest. Ducking into a movie theater to avoid work, he happens upon the handsome, intellectually ambitious Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), who’s in his early 20s. They arrange a meeting later that night, but Jacques is hijacked by one of the actors from his play.
Arthur follows them stealthily, almost impishly. He overhears their conversation, during which the actor brings up the fact that Jacques has AIDS.
The revelation does not dissuade the smitten Arthur. In previous scenes, we’ve seen him struggling with how he’s been living a lie of sorts. A young man who can’t wholly help his callowness, he keeps around a girlfriend, with whom he’s clearly discontented, and sulkily cruises for men at night. All the while, he acts as if everything he does is exactly what he wants to be doing.
Jacques and Arthur negotiate their immediate attraction through a mutual wariness that comes from different places: “I can’t face a final romance,” Jacques says at one point. They fall into a teacher/student relationship almost comfortably as they do a sexual one; one of the movie’s best scenes is a phone conversation during which Jacques delightedly gives a lesson on gay history and semiotics, with invocations of Walt Whitman and Chester Kallman.
It took a while for this digressive movie to get its hooks in me, but once it did, “Sorry Angel” didn’t let go. A big part of it is Jacques, who in Dellandonchamp’s hands is one of the most layered film characters I’ve experienced in some time. Egotistic, mercurial, erudite, recklessly affectionate, careless, vindictive, impulsive, he can turn from exasperating to heartbreaking in seconds flat.