Angel-A (France, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Luc Besson's Angel-A is about as offbeat of a love story as one is likely to find in a movie theater. Think of Wings of Desire crossed with It's a Wonderful Life and crafted applying a film noir style, and you'll have an idea of what the movie offers. There are problems, and these are what keep the picture from attaining the status of an unqualified success. In the first place, it's a talky affair. Sometimes, as in the oeuvre of Besson's countryman, Eric Rohmer, that can be a positive quality, but not here. Besson's dialogue is often inane, occasionally sounding like it is copied verbatim out of a new age self-help manual. Secondly, while there's no denying that Rie Rasmussen cuts a striking figure, she's not the most gifted actress to have graced the screen.

It all starts out on a bridge, where a down-on-his-luck man, Andre (Jamel Debbouze) - who may be an American, an Armenian, or an Arab, depending on which version of his history you believe - is about to jump. He looks to his left and discovers that he's not the only one with this thought. Her face streaked by tears, Angela (Rie Rasmussen), is about to embark upon the same excursion. When she leaps first, Andre abandons thoughts of suicide and dives in to save her. Shortly thereafter, they are on the banks of the river, dripping wet but alive. It turns out that Angela is actually an angel sent to Earth to straighten out Andre's life. The two spend the next 90 minutes wandering around Paris, settling Andre's debts to various gangsters and lowlifes, putting his life together, and falling in love.

The dialogue in which these two engage is sometimes intriguing, sometimes compelling, and sometimes silly. Angela has come to Paris to give Andre back his self respect. Her refrain is that in order to have success in life, one must have self-respect and self-confidence. This is right out of Pop Psych 101, and it's about as deep as the movie gets. There are some intriguing moments, such as when Andre offers to help Angela discover her hidden identity before she became an angel, but these are rarely developed. There simply thrown into the recipe to spice things up.

Besson and his cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast, chose to shoot the film in black-and-white. With Andre dressed in a trench coat and Angela looking every inch the part of a femme fatale, one could be excused for thinking this was some sort of throwback '40s crime movie. In fact, while there are a couple of instances of violence, it's not close to a thriller. The monochromatic choice works, though, because it assures us we're not in the realm of reality. One has to accept Angel-A to be a fairy tale for it to work on any level. As an added bonus, Paris looks great in black-and-white and the portrait of the city presented here is unlike anything we have seen in decades.

Besson must have a thing for tall, leggy models. His muse in both The Fifth Element and The Messenger was 5'9" Milla Jovovich. Here, it's 5'10" Rie Rasmussen, who is perhaps best known for her lesbian clinch with Rebecca Romijin in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale. Rasmussen has an undeniable screen presence and it's incredible the way she captures the camera in black-and-white. Unfortunately, she has little dramatic range and half her dialogue is delivered in a forced, unconvincing style. It could be argued she is both the film's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Playing opposite her is Jamel Debbouze, who reminds me of a French Peter Falk. When it comes to love, it's said that opposites attract and that couldn't be more true than here. He's short; she's tall. He's rumpled; she's sleek. He's dark; she's light. He's a guy who's at home dealing with the devil; she's one of God's chosen.

The most obvious comparison is with Wings of Desire. Both films deal with angels falling in love with humans, but Wim Wenders' 1987 classic is meditative and dream-like, while Besson uses the noir-like atmosphere to keep things moving. Besson has often been accused by some in France of making films that are too "commercial" and too "American." Angel-A is the antithesis of these claims - it is unlikely to inspire much interest outside the U.S. art house circuit and it's only connection to Hollywood is to a bygone era. Angel-A is an intriguing film, but more of an interesting failure than an offbeat success. It's worth seeing for those who find its ideas stimulating, but the exploration of those ideas is unfortunately weighted down by some dialogue that may cause more eye rolling than rapt attention.

Angel-A (France, 2005)

Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Rie Rasmussen, Jamel Debbouze
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Music: Anja Garbarek
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1