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Posts Tagged ‘Angel-A’

Now, I would obviously never suggest that the filmography of Luc Besson is either formulaic or repetitive – oh, hang on, yes I did – but the man has a reputation for making a certain kind of film: loud, slick, violent thrillers, which combine impressive levels of excess with carefully modest budgets. The thing is that while this sort of thing may form the main revenue stream of Besson’s Europacorp, for most of these films he confines himself to the role of producer or writer. Luc Besson the director is a rather less predictable figure.

This is a guy with both a biopic of a Burmese politician and a major Hollywood fantasy blockbuster on his CV, after all, although to be fair probably his most celebrated films (Nikita and Leon) are both stylish, violent thrillers. It’s as if this kind of material has a magnetic attraction for Besson he can’t quite shake off, no matter what the film he’s trying to make is.

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Which brings us to 2005’s Angel-A, one of the more eccentric entries in the Besson canon, and a fairly obscure one for Anglophone audiences – most Besson productions are in box-office friendly English, but the films he directs himself are often in French, and this is one of them. It’s in black-and-white, too, which only adds to the sense that this is a self-consciously arty production.

Jamel Debbouze plays Andre, an ill-favoured low-life residing in Paris, who’s going through a bit of a crisis: he’s hugely in debt to several local gangsters who are running out of patience with him. Not happy with constantly being beaten up and dangled off the Eiffel Tower, he seeks help from the US Embassy (he apparently has a Green Card, not that this is really central to the plot) and the Parisian police, but no-one is willing to help him.

Finding it all a bit too much, Andre resolves to kill himself by jumping into the Seine, but upon clambering onto a bridge he is put out to discover someone else already there, apparently with the same idea: Angela (Rie Rasmussen), a strapping young woman if ever there was one. Of course, Andre finds the idea of Angela committing suicide shocking – sorry, I know you’ve probably heard this one before – and dives in to save her when she actually jumps.

The growing suspicion that we have parted company with anything resembling the real world is only strengthened when Angela declares that, as Andre saved her life, she will now do absolutely anything he asks of her, and if that includes helping him clear his debts, so be it. Of course, Andre’s growing feelings for his odd new companion are bound to complicate matters – to say nothing about the mystery of Angela’s own background.

Hmmm, I find myself in an odd spoiler?/non-spoiler? quandary. The very title of the film, together with its obvious references to It’s A Wonderful Life, don’t make it particularly difficult to guess Angela’s secret (Besson’s fondness for compositions where she appears to have wings is also a bit of a giveaway). So is the eventual revelation that she is, in fact, one of your genuine angels actually meant as a plot twist? It’s hard to tell: the film is so arch and knowing that one almost gets the sense Besson expects the audience to be in on the gag.

In any case, Angela is a very Bessonian angel: Rasmussen towers over Debbouze, is fearsomely blonde, and spends the entire film either in her underwear or a strikingly short skirt. Besson’s women, for the most part, turn out to be ass-kicking supermodels and there’s a sense in which that happens here too. The difference is that this is by no means a ‘straight’ thriller, but – well, there’s a question. What kind of film is this, anyway?

Luc Besson is really known as a genre film-maker but Angel-A seems very keen to ignore any notion of genre entirely. Obviously it’s on one level a fantasy (one of the lead characters is an angel, after all), but in parts it is romantic, dramatic, and comic. I have to say that for me it worked better as a comedy than anything else – Debbouze and Rasmussen make an engagingly odd pair as they wander, usually squabbling, around Paris, and there are some gently amusing moments scattered throughout the film (I was never genuinely in danger of laughing, though). But, for the same reason, the romantic chemistry which is supposed to materialise between them never quite put in an appearance.

And when Besson puts in a moment of genuine, character-based seriousness, it just feels a bit odd in such a studiously non-naturalistic film: it’s like cutting from a screwball comedy to Leaving Las Vegas. There’s perhaps a sense in which Besson may be deliberately playing games with the audience’s expectations – a sequence which at first looks like Besson objectifying women in a drearily familiar way ultimately turns out to be something rather less tacky, if somewhat preposterous – but in the end it just feels like this is a film which doesn’t know what it wants to be.

It’s not actually a chore to watch, though, even it’s never in much doubt that this is an exercise in the employment of style rather than substance. In the same vein, the film looks rather fab thanks to some crisp black and white cinematography. But for Angel-A to really grip an audience and work as a story, it would need to have some genuine heart, soul, and humanity about it. And it doesn’t: it just has Luc Besson playing new versions of some old riffs, not to mention some mildly clever tricks on audiences familiar with his work. In the end Angel-A is just a bit too self-indulgently cute to succeed.

 

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