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August 5, 2007

Movie Review – Angel-A (2007)


I am ambivalent about Angel-A. There was really quite a lot to like about the movie and only a few things to dislike, yet as I was watching it I felt emotionally unengaged and unsure how I was meant to respond to the material. It’s not a bad movie, in some ways it is even very good, but it left me with a general sense of dissatisfaction.

The main characters are Andre (James Debouzze), a lovable loser type deeply indebted to several underworld figures and about to suffer a violent end because of it and Angela (Rie Rasmussen), a beautiful and mysterious woman whom Andre meets when she forestalls his suicide attempt and then attaches herself to him. As the gimmicky title reveals, Angela is Andre’s angel. She guides him on a literal journey through the city on a path to escape his money problems and a spiritual journey that is part self-actualization, part falling in love.

Angel-A is written and directed by Luc Besson. It’s his first directorial effort since The Messenger in 1999, although he’s kept himself busy with writing and producing many films in the interim. It’s a welcome return for Besson the director.

The best part of Angel-A is the way it looks. That’s not a trivial commendation. This is an absolutely gorgeous movie to look at. It is filmed in a lovely, soft black and white. Andre and Angela wander through a Paris that is in turns dream-like, nightmarish and ordinary, but always vivid realized. The camerawork is confident and occasionally exhilarating without being flashy.

Although it’s not too extreme a case, Besson the writer does unfortunately indulge his penchant for female degradation with a veneer of female empowerment. It’s most evident in Rasmussen’s costumes, which range from very little to less, and a few unsavory plot points. That was one of the things I disliked, but it was fairly minor and not really why I was unhappy with the film.

The depiction of Angela as an angel is not demeaning, but it is very conventional. Angel-A shares the familiar non-Christian, popular culture conception of an angel as a human with wings, a being subject to the desires and flaws of a human but with a fillip of supernatural abilities. In fact, Angela is literally a human-with-wings, serving a sort of post-death community service on earth with Andre as her latest assignment. It’s an unadventurous approach, if necessary for the fulfillment of the romance plot.

Normally I love a movie that revels in its visual aesthetic. I very much liked that part of Angel-A and the performances were appealing, but ultimately I felt more frustration than pleasure. I was never sure if I was supposed to be responding wholeheartedly to the romance and Andre’s spiritual renewal, or looking on with ironic detachment. I think the former, but the film’s tone was uncertain and kept me at a distance, lessening my interest in the story and severely diminishing the emotional power of the finale.

2 stars