Christophe Honoré’s inaugural NYFF entry Sorry Angel is both quintessentially French and yet not at all. A New Wave legatee through and through, Honore’s film comes replete with poignant Rimbaud quotations and a tender lingering shot of Truffaut’s gravestone. There’s the requisite nighttime philosophizing on streets, plus a wine-heady scene where our main characters dance around the apartment to the strains of faintly nostalgic French pop. It’s 1993, and in this tale spanning Paris and Brittany, two men strike up a love affair.

There is Vincent Lacoste’s university student Arthur: wide-eyed, youthful, lanky frame poured into a leather jacket that does nothing to cloak his restless energy. And then there’s Jacques, over a decade older, a jaded Parisian writer with a five-o-clock shadow and measured gaze, blazer sleeves perennially rolled up. It’s a career-defining role for Pierre Deladonchamps, who charges Jacques’ louche, languid world with a quiet passion.

Yet for all the tropes it employs, Honoré’s film defies pigeonholing. It’s not a powerful AIDS-tinged gay tragedy à la The Normal Heart, nor is it quite the whimsically French romance, though it has elements of both. Rarely do films achieve that balance, but Honoré succeeds with a surprisingly charming, bittersweet turn. He describes his films as made “with the idea of an intimate spectator”—and it comes through, for Sorry Angel is never so emotionally charged as to be melodramatic. The camera often lingers on just one face throughout Arthur and Jacques’ conversations, and even this feels deliberate. For halfway through the film, we begin to realize that it’s not about a couple in love, per se, but how that love changes two individuals.

That’s not to say Lacoste and Deladonchamps don’t share remarkable chemistry onscreen. The film opens with two intercutting vignettes of their separate lives: Jacques waits alone at a cafe for a date with a flighty streetwalker, Arthur dutifully flirts with his erstwhile girlfriend only to slip out at night in search of gay cruising strips. The editing slickly intertwines the two, sharp cuts matched to the beat of the soundtrack. Even before they meet, we get the sense that they are, in their respective lives, drifting inevitably towards one another.

And as Arthur comes into his own, Jacques retreats into himself, a little mired in self-pity. They are fascinated with each other more than they are in love, fascinated with what the other represents. We see this in small touches: their implausible meet-cute in a darkened cinema in Brittany, Arthur scribbling notes as Jacques tells him about literary lover archetypes over the phone, Jacques calling Arthur “my weird Breton”. For Jacques, this weird Breton, with all his spontaneity and wonder, is far removed from his world in Paris, where left to his own devices he cycles through a depressing rolodex of interactions: caretaker to a dying ex-lover, unsatisfying liaisons with a cynical streetwalker, languishing in bed while his young son looks on. The first time Arthur comes to visit Jacques in Paris, he avoids him entirely.

To his credit, Honoré doesn’t overburden the film with the angst of gay struggle or unrequited romance either. He deftly dodges the sombre confession of Jacques’ HIV-positivity, instead choosing to have Arthur (and by extension, us) overhear a facetious conversation Jacques has with a talkative, indiscreet acquaintance. AIDS is a fact of 1990s gay Paris, and whenever illness strikes it doesn’t feel as devastating as merely inevitable. The only concession he makes to this is the relentless, overwhelming blue seeping through every frame, be it in Jacques’ blue bathroom tiles or Arthur’s predominantly navy-toned outfits. The cinematography is melancholic, moody—a happy accident, as it turns out, since the dim bluish streets are a result of Honoré’s attempt at using old mercury lightbulbs to evoke the 90s.

Admittedly, Sorry Angel does meander at points in its two hour running time, but perhaps this is apt for a meditation on the impossibility of love. It is this same back-and-forth that lends the film its self-deprecating humour and unabashed honesty about gay sexuality. The playfulness echoed in its original French title Plaire, aimer et courir vite (“Pleasure, love, and run fast”) is regrettably lost in translation; nevertheless, the film is shot through with subtle comic touches, such as Jacques’ long-suffering neighbour/friend Mathieu lying next to the lovers as they frisk in bed, or an innocuously wholesome striptease Arthur performs to keep a bedridden Jacques company. The cast excels at making these brief moments of levity work. By the time the film draws to a close, Honoré’s made sure we’ve seen it all: plenty of mourning, sex, and smoking on picturesque Parisian bridges.

Sorry Angel is not a fulfilling film—at least, not in the way you might expect a romance to be. The issues it deals with are weighty, but its insights into gay relationships, both romantic and sexual, are equal parts witty and sensitive. It takes unpredictability and makes it eloquent. In Jacques’ apartment, when Arthur tells him, “We could make a good life together,” Jacques confesses, “I can’t face a final romance.” And indeed, Sorry Angel is less about a grand final romance than a possibility, an idea. It’s an idea that feels like something glorious and tentative, inconclusive but delightfully and self-consciously so.