We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The Vertigo-derived character names in Sunday (Madeleine, Judy, Scottie Elster, Johnnie O), as well as a protagonist with dual monikers (Matthew and Oliver), announce writer-director Jonathan Nossiter’s preoccupation with the theme of identity. But unlike Hitchcock’s masterwork, which seamlessly fuses ideas and emotions, Sunday is so consumed with cerebral gamesmanship that it remains a chilly, abstract experience.

In a striking, impressionistic opening sequence, we’re shown daybreak cityscapes of Queens, shot through a tattered, gauzy curtain and accompanied by a melancholy Edith Piaf recording. Gradually, we realize that we’re in a rundown homeless men’s shelter with residents going about their Sunday-morning ablutions. Oliver (David Suchet, PBS’s Hercule Poirot) stands apart from the other squabbling residents. Glum and withdrawn, he leaves the shelter to wander aimlessly.

Under the elevated subway, he encounters Madeleine (Lisa Harrow), a middle-aged British actress lugging a huge, sickly houseplant. She recognizes him as Matthew Delacorta, a movie director she knew in England. Lonely Oliver initially refuses to correct her misapprehension and joins her for breakfast at a diner. His subsequent admission that he is, in fact, a laid-off IBM technician doesn’t seem to faze her. She invites him to her home, where, after they make love, their privacy is invaded by Madeleine’s estranged American husband Ben (Larry Pine).

The rest of the Möbius-strip narrative, co-scripted by poet James Lasdun, consists of enigmatic doublings and revelations that force us to question whether these characters are telling (or even know) the truth about themselves. Is the scar on Ben’s chest the result of an enraged Madeleine attacking him with pruning shears (as he claims) or the consequence of surgery (as she claims)? Is it coincidence that the couple’s adopted daughter attends a costume party wearing the same Elizabethan garb that Madeleine sports in an old performance photograph? Is a faxed article, which appears to confirm that Oliver actually is Matthew, authentic or a hoax fabricated by the jealous Ben? These mysteries, and many others, remain unresolved.

Early in the movie, Madeleine recalls a pronouncement Matthew once made when he was directing her: “Doubt is the protoplasm of serious art.” Obviously, Nossiter shares this credo, which explains Sunday’s willful inscrutability and allows him to immodestly identify himself as a serious artist. His gift for filmmaking is evident. He elicits intense, selfless performances from his cast, especially Harrow, whose worn, dappled beauty and cello-toned voice illuminate every gesture and utterance. And his rigorously composed images, meticulously photographed by Michael Barrow and John Foster, are richly atmospheric, especially some ostensibly irrelevant shots—meat carcasses in a Greek market window, a lobster with taped claws—that, in context, take on poetic resonance.

But however intriguing and accomplished, Sunday fails to cohere or, ultimately, to satisfy. The grimy realism of the homeless-shelter sequences and interspersed glimpses of its denizens going about their diurnal activities—singing with a boombox in the subway, sifting through junkyard rubble—conflict with the stylized ambiguity of the central narrative. At times, two very different movies seem to be struggling to emerge—a neo-documentary about homelessness (based on Nossiter’s and Lasdun’s experiences working in a New York shelter) and a romantic fantasy. Even more damaging, the filmmaker’s insistence on keeping us questioning his characters’ identities undercuts our concern about whether they will be able to reconstruct their damaged lives. Like Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, Sunday is a parlor trick—teasing but coldly unaffecting.

Less ambitious than Sunday in both theme and form, Alive & Kicking, a comedy-drama set in London’s AIDS-racked ballet world, is livelier and considerably more involving. But director Nancy Meckler (Sister My Sister) and screenwriter Martin Sherman (Bent) spoil their film in the closing reel by tacking on a ludicrously melodramatic Rocky-in-tights climax likely to alienate moviegoers responsive to what precedes it.

We first witness Tonio (Jason Flemyng), a tall, rangy, narcissistic dancer so determined to perfect a dance move that he literally bounces off the studio walls in frustration. Dancing is all he has left. He has lost his dancer lover to AIDS, his mentor and best friend Ramon (Anthony Higgins), a Cuban expatriate choreographer, is dying of the same disease, and Tonio himself is infected, though asymptomatic. (He refuses to take medication for his condition, unwilling to abandon his career, which is all that sustains him.) Tonio’s troupe, Ballet Luna, is ailing, too, plagued by financial problems, artistic stagnation, and the mental deterioration of Luna (Dorothy Tutin), the company’s founder and chief choreographer.

At a disco, Tonio is hotly pursued by Jack (Antony Sher), a stocky, bearlike therapist who works with AIDS patients. Initially rejecting his advances, Tonio gradually opens up to Jack and, after a night of playfully passionate sex, joins him for a vacation in Greece. But their relationship is fraught with crises. Tonio lives in fear of being betrayed by his body, his instrument of creative expression; Jack, filled with rage at his inability to alleviate the psychological and physical suffering of his clients, drowns his anger in booze.

Facing insolvency, Ballet Luna decides to stage a swan-song revival of Indian Summer, the once-scandalous homoerotic ballet that brought the company to prominence. Tonio is assigned the leading role, originally danced by the now-deceased Ramon. Struggling to master this demanding piece while maintaining his volatile relationship with Jack, Tonio succumbs, on the day before Indian Summer is scheduled to open, to an AIDS-related ailment that paralyzes his legs. In a shamelessly manipulative show-must-go-on-meets-triumph-of-the-human-spirit finale, Alive & Kicking squanders the sympathy and goodwill it has hitherto engendered.

Meckler and Sherman, both Americans working in England, succeed in capturing the camaraderie and artistic tensions of a dance ensemble. In brisk, pointed vignettes, they present convincing glimpses of this exacting vocation without indulging in the swoony romanticism of The Red Shoes, The Turning Point, and other ballet films. They refuse to idealize their protagonists. Tonio is self-centered, frequently insensitive, and more than slightly campy; insecure Jack is so afraid of being abandoned by his sexually irresistible new lover that he keeps testing him to the point of alienation. The performances are uniformly accomplished, even though Flemyng’s crash-course dance skills are rudimentary, and Tutin, one of Britain’s most distinguished stage actresses, is overqualified to play a role as undemanding as the loony Luna. Formally, Alive & Kicking, produced by English television’s Channel Four, lacks visual distinction. Cinematographer Chris Seager relies too heavily on diffused lighting effects that yield unattractively smeary images.

At its best, Alive & Kicking recognizes and communicates the complexities of art and love, but the filmmakers suffer intermittent lapses into sentimentality. An early scene in which the troupe tries to cheer up the dying Ramon is implausibly plucky, rather like an English production of Rent. In a later sequence, Tonio and Millie (Diane Parish), a lesbian colleague and friend, get high and ill-advisedly attempt to escape their mutual romantic disappointments by making love. Gratuitous and slightly cringe-inducing, this episode, apparently intended as comic relief, is distracting and improbable. But the worst miscalculation is the interminable opening-night performance of Indian Summer, which the incapacitated Tonio “dances” while being held aloft by other members of the ensemble. Meckler’s decision to shoot this sequence in slow motion only heightens the bathos of an embarrassingly misconceived climax.

The film ends so lamely, I suspect, because Meckler and Sherman have backed themselves into a corner by attempting to make an affirmative statement about an essentially bleak predicament. (Alive & Kicking was made before the introduction of protease inhibitors that promise to downscale AIDS from fatal disease to chronic condition.) Sensitive to the deprivations their protagonists have already endured, they are too benevolent to curse them with the additional torments of artistic failure and loneliness. Life, unfortunately, is crueler than art, and in the end, the filmmakers’ determination to impose an optimistic resolution on a hopeless situation betrays them.CP