Sunday, 28 January 2007

Angel-A (2006)


In August 2005 I was in Paris with extended family (mother, brother, sister and respective partners) to celebrate my mother's 70th birthday. Paris is quiet during August because all the locals vacate the city for their annual holiday. Walking along the Seine we were surprised to see a large crane and film crew, pretty much ignored by the few members of the public around. The crane was holding a cage looking onto the main bridge, which seemed very odd, and when we inquired what they were filming we were told it was a film by Luc Besson.

It was only after I'd finished watching Angel-A on DVD over the weekend (on sale in stores this Monday) and dived into the extra's that I realised that I'd just seen the results of that day's filming, and the reason for the cage hanging high over the Seine and looking onto the bridge became clear. If I'd known what the resulting film would look like back on that Paris trip I'd probably have paid far more attention to what was going on that day! The film may have garnered some fairly lacklustre reviews, but I have to say I absolutely loved it!

Angel-A screencap

Let's get the negatives out the way first, or at least the negatives as far as most of the potential audience for a new DVD release will be concerned anyway.

First, the film is black and white. Second, the film is in French, with subtitles. Third, many of the reviews have pointed out that the film is a remake of It's a Wonderful Life, and given that 'Life' is world-reknowned as being a timeless classic, a modern 'remake' just seems pointless doesn't it?!

I won't bother trying to address the first two points (people are ignorant - what can I say?!!), but on the third point I have to say It's a Wonderful Life is one of my favourite films, and no, of course Angel-A isn't in the same league, but nor is it meant to be. It takes the same basic starting point - a man is about to commit suicide, thinking himself worthless, when an angel in human guise arrives to talk him out of it and show him the true meaning of life. But once we're over that initial premise things move very differently.

Angel-A screencap

Jamel Debouzze plays Andre, a bit of a slacker who's fallen on hard times, having run up huge debts with a group of loan sharks all wanting to do for him. With no way out he, more by accident than design, finds himself on a bridge, feeling that the only way out of his problems is to jump in. When he glances over to his left, he sees a beautiful, tear-streaked woman about to do the same and when she jumps in, he follows her and rescues her. The two tag along together through a series of adventures where Angela (Angel-A), as she reveals herself to be, earns enough money for Andre to pay off his debts, whilst also teaching him a few lessons about life and the importance of liking yourself.

What makes the movie work is Debouzze's roguish, but always charming, performance. He's like an Arabic 'Oliver', all cheeky charm and affability, with eyes like deep black pools of sadness and despair that pull you in, so that you desperately want him to redeem himself. He plays the role very much for comic effect, and there are several laugh-out-loud moments, but he has the dramatic gravitas to pull off the more melancholy scenes when he needs to. That he achieves all this despite having only one arm is nothing short of astounding (viewers will notice that the character always has his right hand in his pocket - this is because the actor suffered a severe train accident as a child and only has a stump where his right arm should be).

Angel-A screencap

The comedic effect is heightened by the height differences between Debouzze and his co-star, Rie Rasmussen, the Angel-A of the title, whose chosen human role is that of a leggy slut. While some critics have criticised the lack of chemistry between Rasmussen's character and Debouzze's (the two are supposed to be in love towards the end of the story), her rather distant demeanour for me fits the role she is supposed to be playing - that of a visitor to Earth, trying to save a troubled soul.

The film's third character is that of Paris itself. The city cannot be ignored, and has never looked so beautiful as it has here. Besson's love for the city shines through every frame, and the cinematography is stunning. Even those critics who found the film too long, or repetitive, had to admit that it is visually stunning. You could freeze frame it at almost any point and have a nicely composed still shot. It's not often I watch a film and then want to go back and watch it again immediately, but Angel-A is so beautiful to look at I found myself hitting the 'replay' button as soon as the film ended. This is one film I'd really like to own in high definition format. And the music too is beautifully placed throughout, heightening the mood without ever distracting from it. All-in-all this is a wonderfully constructed film, albeit one that is perhaps a little short on traditional narrative.

Angel-A screencap

The transfer is excellent, and does justice to the wonderful cinematography. The extra's are a little on the thin side, and somewhat annoyingly, also in black and white only, which seems a little excessive. There are basically two Making of... featurettes of about 20 minutes in length each. The first is pretty much a day-by-day diary of the actual shoot, which shows how much like his character Debouzze is - constantly joking and making wise-cracks on set, although it gives little insight into Besson's working methods. It thankfully steers clear of the endless clips and advertising that have marred other DVD releases. The second featurette, despite being titled Making of the Music is really about post-production, albeit with an emphasis on scoring the movie. A theatrical trailer rounds out the set of extra's on the DVD.

Angel-A may not be the most in-depth film you'll see - the general reviews from both public and critics alike demonstrate that. It's a bit of a throwaway confection, but a beautifully made one for all that. It's an upbeat, fun film with a good heart that's different from the mainstream fare mostly on offer. It's also Luc Besson's first film in seven years. I hope he doesn't leave it as long before he makes the next one. If you've ever been to Paris and fallen in love with it you'll find much here to delight, and unlike many films I think this one pays repeated viewings. As a result this one's a purchase rather than a rental, at least in my book!

Angel-A screencap

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