Although Léon made Luc Besson the toast of Tinseltown he was facing accusations of having lost his golden touch just two films later when The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc failed to set the world alight. The run of successes was over and Besson took 6 years off to take stock, go back to basics and back to black & white with the French character drama: Angel-A. It tells the tale of André Moussa, who is out on his ear in Paris with no money, no talents and in serious debt to a number of shady characters. After numerous runs ins with the goons of these various characters, André is left with one day to conjure up tens of thousands of Euros in cash to keep the sharks at bay. André needs a miracle, and he finds one in the form of a beautiful tall blonde named Angela, who beats André to the punch when he’s thinking of jumping into the Seine. When he jumps in and rescues her, she offers him her life to do with as he pleases, and becomes his companion on an odyssey through Paris by night where she offers a solution to his monetary problems and a chance of personal redemption.
Two outsiders: a man and a woman, who are two sides of the same coin and manage to resolve their despondency through the special bond they forge. This is certainly very familiar territory for Luc Besson, and yet in some ways Angel-A feels like a Besson film that isn’t quite a Besson film – perhaps because his regular French cast is missing and perhaps because this is the first of Besson’s films to not be scored by Eric Serra. While the cast and music may seem unfamiliar, the wit and visual splendour is distinctly Luc Besson and Angel-A looks fantastic, with Paris set up as a character in itself and the director/cameraman making doing is best to create a picturesque video postcard of some of the most stunning locations in the French capital.
Whereas Besson’s previous films were grounded in reality and a grim inevitability, this post-Fifth Element drama weaves a tale of hope through a fantastical setting. The big twist surrounding Angela’s appearance in André’s life is pretty obvious from the start, but when it does happen the cynic in me groaned a little at the obvious undercurrent of male fantasy fulfilment of having an altruistic beauty appearing in a man’s life, offering him her mind, body, and soul and kicking ass when commanded to. This feeling was ultimately overridden by the facetious charm of the script, along with the sincerity of the lead characters and the odd couple relationship they form. Jamel Debbouze in particular puts in a nicely layered performance and he has a rather impish puppy-dog appearance that makes him impossible to hate. Rie Rasmussen is also elegant and playfully assertive as Angela.
Angel-A is not quite as involving as the likes of Léon and The Big Blue, a little less talking and a little more inertia might have helped the drama settle a little; but after the inconsistency of Besson’s Hollywood films it’s a huge relief to see that, after more than two decades as a filmmaker, he’s still capable of approaching the exact same themes and very familiar characters and craft a thoroughly engaging drama.
The Disc: Angel-A is Besson’s first black and white film since The Last Battle, and like The Last Battle Optimum have slapped it onto a BD-25 with an average bitrate of 25Mbps. This means that in general the AVC encoding is stronger on this title than most of the other films in the Luc Besson Collection, although there are still signs of compression noise which mostly comes in the all-too-familiar form of some subtle but noticeable banding. Grain too could probably be better defined, but there’s so little grain in the transfer that you don’t really notice it anyway. The film was shot in colour then converted to black and white, which is a process that I always feel results in poor shadow detail, which is the case with Angel-A. Contrast feels reasonably natural and brightness levels seem a little low; blacks look crushed but whites seem nicely weighted. The grayscale image looks pretty good, although there’s just a hint of blue showing through. This isn’t a sharp transfer nor does it feel tremendously soft either, obviously I can’t say for sure given the lack of grain and softness, but it doesn’t feel like any heavy handed noise reduction is in play either, nor could I spot any edge enhancements.
For audio you’ve got the option of the original French in either DTS-HD MA or LPCM 2.0, naturally the DTS-HD track is the way to go here, which offers a very pleasing presentation. Dialogue is extremely clear throughout most the film and there are a number of scenes where the clarity of the dialogue appears almost as if it was looped, but I think there may be a little intentional fading of the environmental sounds to get a slightly surreal sound - plus the location shooting around places like Pont Alexandre III results in a lot of echo. The soundstage in general is nicely expressive and brings the numerous Parisian locations effectively to life, the front stage is wide and defined, while the rears do incorporate a satisfying amount of environmental sounds. Bass and treble response are very solid and each element of the sound is brought forth with clarity. In particular Anja Garbarek’s jazzy score sounds great whenever it takes over. In comparison the LPCM 2.0 track sounds restrained and noticeably less defined in both bass and ambience, and the score certainly has less depth to it.
Optimum have included a handful of extras, the highlight being the 26-minute Making Of which incorporates behind the scenes footage with sit down interviews with Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen. Considering Luc Besson has long shunned extra features like this it’s surprising how much footage there is of him at work, offering even more time with the auteur than the feature-length documentary on the making of The Big Blue, although it’s Jemal and his playful personality that dominates. There’s also a featurette that offers a glimpse at the making of Anja Garbarek’s score and music video for the film, but it offers little beyond rather monotonous shots of various musicians recording their parts. The aforementioned Music Video and a Theatrical Trailer (both in standard definition) complete the extras.