When Judge Kristin Munson asks for Divine intervention, all she gets is that scary chick from Pink Flamingos.
"You got your black-and-white in my blockbuster!"
"You got your airhead plot in my art house!"
It's two great tastes that…don't totally suck together!
It's Angel-A, the latest genre-bending film from the mind of Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita). Depending on your tastes, that is either a scathing indictment or a queue for the Halleluiah chorus. The typical Besson film layers visual after glorious visual around the paper-thin core of a story until your senses are sugar-high. Forget popcorn cinema, this is cotton candy. Despite its art-house trappings and low-budget feel, Angel-A is no different.
Facts of the Case
Andre (Jamal Debbouze, Amelie) is in deep merde. He's been borrowing from Pepe to pay Pierre, owes 50,000 euros to various European gangsters, and has just twelve hours to pay it all back. The best way out is to end it all, but Andre isn't the only one in Paris with problems. Before he can throw himself off a bridge, a young woman leaps first, forcing Andre to save her. To thank him, she makes Andre her personal cause, but Angela (Rie Rasmussen, Femme Fatale) is not who she seems and her mission is about much more than money.
There is a recurring theme in Besson's films of disenchanted men finding redemption with the help of an unlikely female (The Professional, The Fifth Element), but in Angel-A the woman in question is more unlikely than ever. Her identity is meant to be a surprise but, let's face it, if you're able to read the title, you're smart enough to figure it out. This is Wings of Desire with less angst and It's a Wonderful Life with less comforting problem-solving methods (Somehow, I don't think George Bailey would pimp Clarence out to pay back the bank).
Paris is the city of lights and, by stripping down to basic black-and-white, the cinematography showcases the city at its most simple and beautiful. From the Eiffel Tower to a sleazy strip club, every frame looks like it has been lifted from an art book or an ad for designer jeans. The play of shadow and sunshine and flashing neon and fog machines transforms monuments and ordinary spaces into surreal fantasy lands too incredible to be true. Color would be a needless distraction.
Story also seems to be a distraction. Never the movie's focus, it just stops trying by the halfway mark. Angela and Andre hop from point A to B to C and the constant use of divine intervention robs the plot of all suspense. The conflicts introduced in the opening scenes are dealt with in cursory, unsatisfying ways. The romance feels tacked on and has the emotional resonance of a Pepe Le Pew cartoon. It's all too easy.
The movie tries to find a balance between the gloss of Hollywood and the critical depth of the art house but it ultimately has to make a choice and that's when Angel-A comes crashing to Earth. Because it's so pretty, Angel-A decides it doesn't have to be smart or subtle. Characters point out themes and metaphors in the dialogue instead of working to build them up naturally and until Angela's true identity is revealed, the movie beats you over the head with a stale baguette of "clues." Neither of these things may be aggravating the first time through, when you're drunk on the splendor of it all, but they becoming glaring during repeat viewings.
Debbouze, known in France for his comedy work, is an unlikely leading man but he ably taps into Andre's inner turmoil. His character is a failed con man, struggling against his inherent goodness and self-doubt; he guides Andre through a believable arc, even when the script lets him down. On the other hand, French is Rasmussen's third language and her acting can be stiff. Whenever the story calls for her to cry you're waiting for her to pull back and reveal it's all a been a trick to make Andre feel bad. Her creature of mystery is a puppet of the plot, switching personality from demented nympho to loving life-coach at the script's whims, with no connecting thread to latch onto.
The DVD transfer is breathtaking perfection; it turns a standard television into a black-and-white window to Paris. Audio is equally good, with one drawback: the 5.1 mix instantly reveals where dialogue has been re-recorded. A pesky studio echo pops in and out of outdoor scenes, mostly during Rasmussen's lines. The sole extra is a standard "making of" puff piece rounded out with on-set footage. Oddly, Debbouze, not Besson, is the main focus. Debbouze's antics and opinions are entertaining enough but this is Besson's first film as writer/director in seven years and he isn't even interviewed.
Like all the Besson films before it, Angel-A sports stunning visuals but a spotty plot. The film's beauty sucks you in but the story collapses like a soufflé under scrutiny. In spite of all this, Angel-A is still an aesthetic treat and a good introduction to those who find foreign films synonymous with cigarettes, croissants, and stunning boredom or wouldn't touch a black-and-white movie with a ten-foot French loaf. Expecting any more will leave you disappointed.
If you see only one funny art-house fantasy romance drama this year, make it Angel-A.
Guilty of putting style over substance.
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Scales of Justice
• The Making of Angel-A
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