France, 2005, 91 minutes, Black and white.
Jamel Dabbouze, Ria Rasmussen, Gilbert Melki.
Directed by Luc Besson.
This is an unusual film. It is definitely an unusual film for writer-director Luc Besson. In the 1980s, he made a powerful impression with his first films blending action and surrealism, films like Le Dernier Combat and Subway. He had a passion for underwater filming with the feature, The Big Blue, and his fascinating documentary, Atlantis. Then he moved to more colourful and violent action with La Femme Nikita, Leon and The Fifth Element, capping the 1990s with his portrait of Joan of Arc, The Messenger.
Since then, he has changed gears, so to speak, with a passion for cars and trucks – and more mindless action: the Taxi series, the Transporter series and producing such ugly thrillers as Unleashed. His more recent script for District 13 was more tongue-in-cheek and more effective.
Who would have thought that after six years not directing a film, he would return with a touch of the Wim Wenders (incorporating the Besson world of criminals and violence)? Angel.A is Besson’s Wings of Desire. And filmed in black and white too.
In many ways, it is less complex than Wings of Desire (which, for those of us who did not warm to the Wenders, is not such a bad thing). Jamal Debbouze (one of the group of actors who won the Cannes Acting award for Indigenes) is a petty criminal out of his depth with no way of paying back debts. One way out is to throw himself into the Seine. As he contemplates this, he meets a tall, young, blonde woman – he is quite short – who does jump. He rescues her, only to discover that she is an angel sent to save him, Angela, Angel.A.
Who would have thought that Besson would also have a touch of the Frank Capras, echoing It’s a Wonderful Life?
There are quite a number of religious and philosophical conversations, especially about salvation and responsibility. Because Angel is tall and muscular, there are also some Besson-like physical encounters which show the Angel would be a good sidekick to Jet Li.
There are some who deride the frequent presence of angels in contemporary films (and there are quite a few) – unless they are in a Wenders’ film. A Besson angel is a quirky mixture of certainty and uncertainty, a commitment to a mission of salvation without knowing the outcome, a protector and a good friend. The angel question is whether having achieved her goal, she goes to heaven or comes down to earth.
This is an interesting and appealing odd-couple journey through both a down-to-earth Paris and a transcendent Paris.
1. The title? Angels in the 21st century? The film tradition of angels? Guardians? Coming down to earth? Sharing human experience, saving people and their lives? The influence of such films as It’s a Wonderful Life…?
2. Black and white photography, the city of Paris, the familiar landmarks, the beauty of the city, the ugliness of the city? The world of crime? The river, the cruise? The club? The musical score?
3. A film by Luc Besson? His usual emphasis on action, chasers and stunt work?
4. Andre, his story, as a person, at home in the world of petty crime, serving his prison sentence, getting out, the demands for repayment of debts? The death threats? Midnight?
5. Audience empathy with him or not?
6. His visits to the American Embassy, to no avail? The French police?
7. Despairing, going to the Bridge, seeing the tall girl? Their both jumping?
8. Andre and the moment his decision, to save the girl, his doing so?
9. On the banks of the river, his response to Angel? Her response to him?
10. Their going on the river, the cruise, the talk? Going to pay the creditors? Going to the club, the experience?
11. The revelation of who the Angel was, her mission, coming to save Andre, her personality, love and care for him? His response?
12. The film as something of a Parisien fairy tale – or an angel tale?