Pretty on the Outside
Luc Besson’s latest is too sweet for its own good
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
ANGEL-A: Written and directed by Luc Besson. Cinematography, Thierry Arbogast. Music, Anja Garbarek. Production design, Jacques Bufnoir. Starring Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen. Sony Pictures Classics, 2006. 91 minutes. R.
Arguably, French writer-director-producer Luc Besson made his biggest splash in American theaters with 1997’s The Fifth Element, a sci-fi trip full of derivative moments and blinding sets — and creative, playful spirit and striking images. Before Element, Besson was best known for The Professional, which cast a very young, clearly talented Natalie Portman as a girl in the care and training of a hitman, and La Femme Nikita, about a convicted felon reinvented as a super-spy.
Between Element and Angel-A (which was released in 2005 in France), Besson directed one film, the flimsy The Messenger. (He spent his time producing handfuls of films, from Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada to the the underappreciated District B13, which he also co-wrote.) You can trace a line connecting these three films with no effort whatsoever: They all involve preternaturally gifted — and astonishingly leggy — women as powerful saviors. Element‘s unforgettable, orange-haired Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) was an alien being helping Bruce Willis’ cabdriver save the universe from evil; The Messenger‘s main character, Joan of Arc (Jovovich again), doesn’t need any introduction; Angel-A‘s Angela (Rie Rasmussen) abilities are right there in the film’s title. Makeup smeared, platinum hair mussed, she appears on the Paris bridge from which André (Jamel Debbouze, of Amelie) is preparing to leap. André is in massive debt, broke, lacking identification and full of self-deception. His introduction to the viewer is nearly all lies, at the end of which he admits he lies to himself incessantly. But Debbouze’s childlike, open face makes us want to think André is capable of more than simply trying to weasel his way out of paying up. André, though, is running out of options.
Enter Angela, who throws herself into the river and, when André saves her, attaches herself to him. Enthusiastic, cheery, innocent and sensual, Angela seems to embody too many things at once; it’s almost impossible to keep an eye on her ever-moving limbs. She towers over André, who seems constantly to squint as if he’s looking straight into the sun when he looks up at her. The two of them traipse through a stunning Paris of empty streets (the black-and-white film was shot in July and August, when many Parisians were on vacation) and endless bridges. Angela has decided to help André get himself together again — it’s repayment for his pulling her from the river. But her techniques are incomprehensible, and André begins to ask questions, confused about Angela’s motives, talents and actions.
Angela’s provenance is no surprise, and neither is her eventual breakdown or the film’s fairy-tale feel, especially as it draws to a close. This is a wee urban fable of a different kind, one involving not the fey but the sublime — albeit a sublime with a sense of humor. But this sense is inconsistent, and one of Angel-A‘s main failures is that it simply takes itself too seriously. It’s wish fulfillment of a high order: A scruffy, scheming, duplicitous man is saved from himself by the love of a good (gorgeous, heaven-sent) woman. Without an awareness of the sentimentality inherent in this story and a strong sense of humor to temper that sentimentality, Angel-A becomes treacly and uncomfortably sweet. Though it’s stacked with dazzling imagery and beautiful shots, perfect costumes and a dancing interplay of light on dark, there’s simply nothing satisfying in this cotton-candy tale but its gorgeously filmed surfaces.
Angel-A opens Friday, Aug. 3, at the Bijou.