May 30, 2007

On Angel-A

An odd dip into the French new wave playbook for the iconoclastic Luc Besson, Angel-A marks itself as a departure for the king of Gallic action cinema on several fronts, one that’s not completely satisfying, but not without its charms.

Mr. Besson, now waste deep in middle age, is well past the infant terrible stage of his career that was cemented with action hits La Femme Nikita and Leon. At 47 he is a bona fide movie mogul with his production company EuropaCorp being one of the most the continent’s most prolific and is a few years beyond his decade long relationship with Slavic supermodel, action star and personal muse Milla Jovovich, who starred in his forays into big budget American studio production with the dazzling The Fifth Element and the underwhelming The Messenger. This time out he has has made a sweet romantic fairy tale on the cheap, one which is rich in fun set pieces and the sensual pleasures of leggy dames, but light on the spectacle and imaginative verve we’ve come to expect from the man who embodies everything French cinephiles love to hate. Yet one senses a deeper connection to his material than his last live action foray, the staid English language Joan of Arc biopic The Messenger. In the press, he’s referred to Angel-A as “my story”, suggesting that there’s more at stake for Mr. Besson than meets the eye in this film, sort of It’s a Wonderful Life meets Mean Streets, with supermodels. Yet, if this is finally his foray into an auteurist mode that Besson has mocked for much of his career, than what to make of the film’s utter transparency?

Where to start? Algerian Brooklynite Andre (Jamel Debouzze) is down on his luck. He owes figure figure sums to various sundry heavies up and down the Seine. His compulsive lying (his American citizenship is due solely to a technicality) doesn’t earn him the favor of the American Embassy or the French police, who refuse to arrest him even as he threatens to commit a crime in front of the precinct. Even ending his life isn’t working out for him; just as he’s about to jump into the Seine he encounters the Angela (Rie Rasmussen) a towering blond who may just happen to have been sent from above to rehibiliate Andre’s soul.

Shot on the streets of Paris in crisp, high contrast black and white by Thierry Arbogast, Angel-A works primarily because of the romantic chemistry and comedic timing of Mr. Debouzze and Mrs. Rasmussen, who prove to be likable and sympathetic screen presences despite the paper thin scenario, scripted by Mr. Besson, that gives us a series of French baddies we couldn’t care less about as antagonists. The film is structured around polarities; transcendence follows decay, black and white photography, tall blond heroine with short dark hero – yet never jumps headlong into the metaphysical questions within the narrative - supernatural spirits, devine intervention and the role of God in the universe – with anything but whimsy. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, dabbles in much the same territory with much more gusto, yet teamed with Mrs. Rasmussen, who’s energy and sex appeal will lead her no doubt to a very successful film career, Mr. Debouzze is able to command our sympathies, our pity and our attention for the duration of Mr. Besson’s foray into “personal filmmaking”.