Being neither strictly mainstream nor as direct and confrontational as some of his earlier arthouse works, François Ozon’s adaptation of a classic romantic melodrama novel in Angel has confused a lot of critics and viewers and even many of the director’s fans. Based on a classic of romantic literature, Elizabeth Taylor’s novel in turn is inspired by the works of Victorian writer of romantic fiction Marie Corelli, and Ozon seems to delight in layering the film with various overt and sometimes barely perceptible levels of irony. It’s a risky game to play and for many viewers Ozon has perhaps gone a step too far, but as ever with this director, there’s a lot more going on in Angel than may be apparent from a superficial reading.
Playing it mostly straight however with only a few obvious fake back projections to indicate that all is not as it seems, Ozon initially doesn’t give too many clues as to what that intention is, sticking fairly closely rather to the original novel’s romantic melodrama template. Angel Deverell (Romola Garai) is, to say the least, a precocious child. She lives with her mother in rooms above their grocery store in Norley, but in her mind, the real origins of her birth are wrapped in mystery and, as she gazes through the gates of the fabulous Paradise House mansion, she believes that she is really born of noble blood and will one day achieve her rightful place in society. She intends to do this through her “literary genius”, and even though she’s never even read a book, she pours her fantasies about the dramatic and romantic life of her creation Lady Irania into her notebooks, sends them off to all the big London publishers, and then just has to wait for the inevitable tussle between publishers and acclaim that will inevitably follow.
And incredibly, it does. Despite being slightly alarmed at the naivety of Angel’s imaginative works of fiction and noting some inaccuracies in her knowledge of the ways of the world, but intrigued by this unusual personality despite the scepticism of his wife (Charlotte Rampling), Theo Gilbright (Sam Neill) decides to risk publishing her audacious first novel, which Angel promises she will follow-up with a sequel in the next couple of weeks. The publication of her work results in a meteoric rise to fame and riches for Angel Deverell, her books flying off the shelves, read avidly by women readers and receiving popular if not critical acclaim. Soon she is even able to buy the home of her dreams, Paradise House where, waited on by servants, she moves in with her mother and engaged a devoted admirer, Nora Howe-Nevison (Lucy Russell) as her secretary. She is admired and loved by everyone, except perhaps by one mysteriously intriguing man introduced to her at a reception, Nora’s brother Esme. A wild, penniless womanising artist, Esme (Michael Fassbender) seems immune to Angel’s charms until she starts to show an interest in purchasing some of his dark, ugly and unconventional paintings. At the height of her celebrity, Angel recklessly embarks on an affair with Esme, but it’s a troubled relationship that will eventually lead to her downfall.
François Ozon generously allows the viewer two ways of viewing this kind of romantic melodrama. If you are so inclined, you can take it entirely at face value and enjoy it for being the kind of wonderful, lushly coloured and elaborately decorated baroque melodrama the likes of which haven’t been seen since the heyday of Douglas Sirk, and Ozon does nothing to take away from the recreation of this illusion and allusion to a former way of making films. On the other hand, twenty minutes into the film – if not even earlier than that – Ozon alerts the viewer to the fact that the whole story is nothing but artifice. “Nothing I’m telling you seems real”, Angel admits to her publisher, “and one day I might even stop believing it myself”. Thereafter everything that takes place can be taken with a hefty pinch of salt and a liberal sprinkling of fairy-dust, the whole of Angel’s fame, celebrity and wealth possibly being nothing more than the fantasy projection of her own mind for the literary genius she believes she possesses.
Even yet even that denies that there is much going on in Angel beyond it being a sweeping old-fashioned romantic fantasy. Angel however belongs very much to a modern way of looking at such genre material that Ozon has tackled before in 8 Women and Swimming Pool, two films that had a lot more going on beneath the surface than was first apparent, allowing the writer/director the opportunity to examine genre, narrative form and the nature of writing and creating fiction itself. The power of art, drama and literature to create other worlds and other realities and maybe even effect a shift in social attitudes is very evidently to the fore in the nature of Angel Deverell as a writer who has the ability to make a not insignificant impression as a social and cultural phenomenon even though her ludicrous fantasies have little basis in the real-world. As the film’s pre- and post-WWI setting indicates however, the trajectory of Angel’s career mirrors the social changes and cultural upheaval that English society would undergo in its transformation from the romanticised Victorian view of the lives of the upper classes to an acknowledgement of the social realities of those who had previously been denied representation.
In its own way then, the romantic fantasies concocted by Angel Deverell, while they may have no overt literary or social merit, are instrumental nonetheless in giving women a voice (in her initial interview with her publisher Angel refuses to edit her work to suit established male-dictated standards and acceptable social views of the Victorian readership, and she even balks at the idea of writing under a male pseudonym) that in a way liberates the imagination of her women readers. She upturns social order also in her achievement of fame and celebrity, not through the traditional passing on of inherited family wealth and position but on her own merits as a woman rising from the lower middle-classes. Although she doesn’t know if she really likes it or not, in her sponsorship and championing of Esme’s art, Angel also supports the efforts of a new modern style of painting that may be superficially ugly, but is a deeper personal expression and proletarian viewpoint that adjusts perceptions and speaks of the harsh realities of the new modern world. There is no place for pretty pictures of peacocks for those who have survived the trenches.
It’s the embracing of modernism that eventually leads to Angel’s own downfall, since she in effect destroys the necessary romantic illusion that her work needs to evoke in order to succeed, but it’s a necessary sacrifice that paves a direction towards a new and more honest way of looking at the world. Ozon bravely, and at the risk of his own film being misunderstood, attempts to mirror this very process in Angel itself, creating the illusion in order to destroy it. If it is to succeed however it also needs intelligent actors and the principally British cast he has been gathered here is impressive, particularly the magnificent performance of Romola Garai. Personally I’ve never previously been a fan of the actress or the school of English period drama and mannerisms that she comes from (I Capture The Castle, Atonement - dreadful irony-free old-world films of the type revered/satirised here), but she is perfect as Angel Deverell - far more subtle and nuanced than the enthusiastic overplaying suggests, playing it relatively straight as far as melodrama goes but not naturalistically (which would kill the effect), bravely confronting the complexities of irony that lie within her Scarlett O’Hara-like character while at the same time making Angel a sympathetic and fascinating creator of fiction, in her life as much as in her books. Ozon brilliantly, masterfully and intelligently finds a way for these divergent views of modernism and classicism to coexist in a way that really should not be possible in a modern film, and certainly shouldn’t be as entertaining as this one is.
Angel is released on DVD in the UK by Lionsgate. The film is presented in two versions – the regular International Version of the film and the extended Domestic Version - both presented on one dual-layer disc. The DVD is in PAL format, and encoded for Region 2.
The DVD transfer of the film isn’t the most impressive. It’s fine at least in as far as it presents a reasonably clean print in a progressive transfer at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but the colours, sharpness and detail are perhaps not what they could be. Angel should be a bright colourful film, but many of the tones here look somewhat desaturated, making the film a little duller than I remember from the theatrical presentation. Black tones are flat, skin tones are very pale and sepia coloured and there’s a general lack of vividness and an unfilm-like quality to the print that suggests that it may have been heavily filtered or DNR’d to remove grain. It’s hard to be any more precise about what is wrong since there are no other obvious problems with macroblocking or edge-enhancement and the image can look quite impressive with its extravagant colouration. I would imagine for most viewers this will look just fine, but I suspect that the film could look much better than this.
There is only one audio track included, presenting the film in Dolby Digital 5.1. There are no real problems with the audio track, but there’s no great flair to it either. Dialogue and sounds are handled capably, the music score is relatively clear and there is subtle dispersion of the sound to the rear speakers mainly for ambience, but it never really makes much of an impression.
English subtitles are included in a fine, clear, reasonably sized white font and are optional.
Two versions of the film are included here as the Domestic and International Cuts. The International Cut (115m) is the shorter version of the film shown theatrically in the UK, the Domestic Cut (128m) is a slightly longer version, both presumably director approved. Having seen the film theatrically, I only watched the longer version here and didn't notice any significant new scenes, so I would suspect that the trims are minor. The Making Of (26:54) is a pretty much of the standard TV special or EPK feature type. Brief interview clips with the director and cast are interspersed with clips from the film and behind-the-scenes footage, Ozon talking about the classic look he wanted to achieve, about working with an English cast, the actors about their characters and the atmosphere on the set. A slideshow Photo Gallery (4:04) presents a selection of stills that show off the film’s marvellous costume design. There is a series of Trailers on the disc that irritatingly have to be navigated through when the disc loads.
It’s very easy to be dismissive of Angel as an aberrant throw-back to an old way of making films that looks out of place in modern cinema, but when it comes from a director like François Ozon there really should be some deeper consideration of what he is trying to achieve. Evidently, the director finds something unique in the old Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s, in their ability to create another uniquely cinematic reality, but since those kind of films cannot be recreated and have the same meaning to an audience with a more modern outlook on cinema, Ozon attempts to find a new way of harnessing that power in a way that is not ironic or satirical. Whether he gets that balance right or not will depend on the sensibility of the individual viewer, but it means that there are many levels on which the film can be enjoyed and if even one of them works for the viewer, Angel should be a delightful experience.
Presented here with both Standard and Extended versions on the same DVD, the A/V quality of Lionsgate’s could almost certainly be improved, but this is an acceptable release of the film.