Luc Besson’s Angel-A received a rough ride from the French press on its release last year. It didn’t help that Besson didn’t make the film available for advance press screenings – never a good sign for a film - and when the critics did eventually catch up with it, they were less than complimentary about his modern-day fairy tale. Whether the negative response to Angel-A had anything to do with the Besson’s early and precipitated retirement from film directing is unknown – the film was a comparatively small, intimate and personal film that the director clearly holds dearly – but the announcement that he was leaving cinema to set up an association to help young people in the impoverished suburbs wasn’t exactly lamented, one magazine reporting it as “good news for them and even better news for cinema”.
Never a fan of Besson’s big, dumb, action movies myself, it was with this background and the foreknowledge from the movie trailer that Angel-A was a kind of modern remake of It’s A Wonderful Life that I approached Besson’s film with some trepidation. But for one significant factor, the film relies almost entirely on the odd-couple matching of short and ugly comedian Jamel Debbouze with the beautiful leggy blonde Scandinavian supermodel Rie Rasmussen, the casting of which, despite Debbouze’s huge popularity in France and a number of successful film roles (most recently the Oscar nominated Indigènes), seems to have been made more with celebrity and looks in mind over any acting qualifications. Debbouze plays André, a young man who is in a lot of trouble, owing large sums of money to a number of violent and dangerous criminals all over Paris. About to throw himself off a bridge, he is disconcerted by the appearance of a beautiful woman who jumps into the Seine ahead of him, forcing him to rescue her. Having saved her life, Angela vows not only to help André out of his money problems, but help him overcome his low self-esteem and discover his inner beauty.
Not even taking into account the predictability and inevitable outcome of this clichéd situation that is heavily indebted to sources as varied as It’s A Wonderful Life, The Girl On The Bridge and Les Amants du Pont Neuf, the problems with Besson’s approach are immediately evident. As ever, his approach to women in his films is problematic, casting a supermodel purely for her looks, taking full advantage of every opportunity to show-off her incredibly long legs, and defining her character as both a slut and an angel. The dialogue is quite funny – and it must be said superbly translated in the subtitles into idiomatic English that for once captures the right tone in the film’s use of slang and profanity – but it is limited, and in scenes that are drawn out to interminable length, far beyond what the situation and the charm of the leads can sustain. In a number of key scenes the purpose is immediately apparent and quickly made – the initial meeting between André and Angela on the Quay of the Alexandre III bridge, the nightclub money-making session, and Angela’s revelation of her not terribly well disguised celestial identity - but Besson drags them out and over-explains everything, clearly in love with each situation and wanting to make sure that everyone else gets the point. His faith in the lead actors to carry this off these extended dialogue-heavy scenes is not entirely misplaced however, Debbouze and Rasmussen surprisingly both having considerable charm in their odd-couple double-act and more than adequate acting ability.
In large part due to the efforts of the two leads, André and Angela’s situation does assume the fairy-tale qualities that Besson clearly intends for the film. Inevitably, it’s a Beauty and the Beast situation, with Angela bringing out the inner beauty that André’s much beaten, maligned and put-upon character, reduced to the status of a badly smelling beggar, can no longer recognise in himself. If those roles are fairly predictable and overemphasised in a manner that would be expected from a film with a title like Angel-A, they are tweaked slightly with Angela’s at times less than saintly behaviour and assisted by Abrogast’s camera angles that almost reverse the traditional casting of the roles with Rasmussen hulking over the diminutive Debbouze.
The charm of their situation and the ability of the leads to carry it is stretched to its limit however and only sustained by the other significant factor in the film’s making – Thierry Abrogast’s remarkable monochrome portraiture of this mismatched team and his quite stunning cinematography in the film’s beautiful Parisian locations. In a black-and-white Scope guided tour of all the famous Paris landmarks, André attempts his suicide by diving off the Pont Alexandre III, is dangled from the Eiffel Tower by Gilbert Meki’s goons, takes a boat tour of the Seine and has an early morning conversation with Angela in front of the Sacré Coeur Cathedral. All of this is filmed with swooping crane shots in the glowing light of early morning sunrises. The film builds up to a conclusion that in one fell swoop follows André and Angela in a spin that sweeps down the Rue de Rivoli, taking in the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde, a view of the Place Vendôme and the Champ Elysees and winds up again on the Alexandre III bridge, taking in the Palais de la Découverte and Les Invalides. It’s a dizzying and dazzling display in a film that really amounts to little more than a love-letter to Paris. “You are in the most beautiful city in the world”, says Angela to André early in the film, and if Angel-A achieves anything, it’s certainly in backing up that statement.
Angel-A is released in the UK by Optimum Releasing. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
As noted in the review, the cinematography in this film is something special, and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is preserved here in a fine anamorphic transfer. The high-contrast black-and-white doesn’t come across quite as well on DVD and, depending on your display device, may show up some underlying colour tints that should not be there. The screen captures used in this review for example, don’t accurately convey the true luminous tones seen on the screen. Technically however, there is nothing else to fault with the transfer. The image is clear and sharp throughout, there is not a mark or scratch to be seen nor any sign of digital problems such as compression artefacts or edge enhancement.
The original French soundtrack is presented in a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. The surround mix is evidently the one to go for, but it seems curiously mixed. The centre channel can sometimes sound a little low and echoing and dialogue is not so clear, particularly when it is competing with a lot of ambient sounds and the music score on the other channels. It’s partly intentional, as in the opening scene when André and Angela are standing almost below a bridge, but seems to occur in other less appropriate places. Nonetheless, the audio is for the most part strong and powerful, if a little muddy in the lower registers.
English subtitles are provided and happily, as seems to be the case since the Studio Canal acquisition of Optimum, they are now optional. They are white and in a reasonably sized font, but where screen space is at a premium, their entire placement within the image frame tends to compromise the stunning visual look of the film. If you can manage without the subtitles, it will certainly be of benefit, and you do have the option here. The translation, as noted in the review, is excellent, appropriately capturing the tone of the humour, the slang and the mild profanity used.
The Making Of Angel-A (26:51) is a little too slickly put together and MTV-edited, but it covers the production well, interviewing Debbouze (inevitably goofing around a lot) and Rasmussen, getting a sense of the amount of rehearsal that went into their work and the sheer professionalism of Besson’s crew in the making of the film. Besson, although present throughout, surprisingly doesn’t contribute any thoughts on the film himself. Angel-A makes good use of an original score and songs composed for the film by Anja Garbarek. The Making Of The Music (13:54) show her working with the sound engineer and musicians on the orchestration of the score. Garbarek appears in the Music Video (3:29), which is shot in the same style as the film, in the same Parisian locations. The Trailer (1.48) is snappy and quite effective, as I can personally testify, since it succeeded in inducing a long-time hater of Luc Besson films to go and see it.
Despite the negative press, the usual Luc Besson problems with scripting, characterisation and an admittedly clichéd modern-day fairytale storyline, Angel-A is a surprisingly entertaining film, succeeding through the very simplicity of its Beauty and the Beast storyline and through some sympathetic performances that are assisted by Thierry Abrogast’s remarkable black-and-white cinematography in its breathtaking whirlwind tour of Paris. As someone who has attempted to watch quite a few Luc Besson films, but only previously managed to make it all the way through to the end of one of them (Nikita), Angel-A’s light-hearted humour and relatively low-key ambitions comes as a very pleasant surprise. Optimum’s DVD release presents the film exceptionally well with some good supporting features.