Carrying the Torch
By Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega
Dir. Luc Besson, France, Sony Pictures Classics
The rise of non-white French filmmakers throughout the Nineties allowed viewers around the world to escape the safe zone of â€śParis, the City of Loveâ€ť and plunge into its crisscrosses of violence, racial bias, psychological imbalance, and sexual abuse. Now, Luc Bessonâ€™s Angel-A, his first film since the lavish and catatonic The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), self-consciously retreats into postcard-Paris aesthetics for its tale of love between a skinny, tall angel (Rie Rasmussen) and a tiny loser (Jamel Debbouze).
Besson unambiguously stated that he aimed to capture the â€śtrue, beautiful Paris, the one that enthralls millions of tourists every year and we, Parisians, walk past every morning, head down, lost in our personal paradise.â€ť True or false, the Paris Thierry Arbogastâ€™s camera photographs is an empty and black-and-white tapestry of early dawns, multilayered bridges caressing the Seineâ€™s banks, and vast skies crossed by torrents of perfect clouds. This is the ideal mise-en-scĂ¨ne for the whimsical love story between pathetic AndrĂ© and chic Angela, which blossoms amidst a predictable roster of caricatured small-time crooks. Before savior Angelaâ€™s magical sudden appearance, AndrĂ© has to deal with the thugsâ€™ attempts to break his fingers due to his failure to pay debts; but after she glues her fate to his, itâ€™s all a walk in the parkâ€”the crooks fall easily under her spell and her sharp fists. AndrĂ© is free to ramble on incessantly, while Angela chain smokes, dresses like a â€śsexy bitch,â€ť uses her body to charm thugs, and persistently attempts to convince AndrĂ© to believe in his own worth. Her â€śassignmentâ€ť is to fix up AndrĂ©, whoâ€™s cursed by constant bad luck and a lukewarm sense of fatal defeat. Shit, is this one of these â€śedifyingâ€ť stories about the importance of spiritual self-improvement? Just in case youâ€™re getting increasingly mortified, let me also mention the final showdown at the Seine between the two lovers-to-be, as they challenge nature and religionâ€”gravity and Godâ€”to remain together.
But donâ€™t panic just yet. Perhaps if it wasnâ€™t for Debouzzeâ€™s nervous charm and Rasmussenâ€™s controlled chic, Bessonâ€™s ode to his city would be simply that. However, the actorsâ€™ masterful alternation between heartfelt fragility and loquaciousness redeem Bessonâ€™s project, enveloping it with a distinctive layer of fatalistic allure. Angel-A is an ideal date film if youâ€™re not afraid to strip yourself of cinephilic sophistication and plunge into its fleeting, â€ścheesyâ€ť pleasures. If youâ€™re an aficionado of Gaspar NoĂ©â€™s tales of transcendent gore, Catherine Breillatâ€™s vaginal epics, or Olivier Assayasâ€™s visually heterogeneous fables of grainy violence, Ă la demonlover, please stay put; if you dig Wong Kar-waiâ€™s polyphonic glimpses at cityscapes, you may want to give Angel-A a look.
Like AmĂ©lie, a bubblegum mĂ©lange of saturated colors and cute weirdos, Angel-A makes no effort to engage with any sort of social reality. Instead, it cauterizes its clean-cut whimsical romance by foregrounding Parisâ€™s iconic landmarks. Despite the continuous verbal batteries between Angela and AndrĂ©, these monumental markers of beauty parade before our eyes in an effort to make us impulsively rush to Orbitz and buy a ticket to spend a week eating Grand Marnier crepes and lining up for seven hours and 31 minutes to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. Perhaps this is the ultimate function of Angel-A: as an hour-and-a-half commercial for Paris and its hosting for the 2012 Olympicsâ€”a project in which Besson is deeply involved.
Whether you find Angel-A a fiasco or a sweet tale of unexpected love depends on your inclination to accept or neglect Bessonâ€™s scattershot ambitions: he shoots in many promising, even slightly provocative directions (e.g. it initially seems Angela whores herself to help AndrĂ©) before ultimately falling back into a cheap comfort zone. With Paris as his fundamental representational axis, Besson thus needs to offers no more than an hour and a half of clichĂ©d romance buoyed by spectacular cinematic craft. For Paris is the â€ścity of loveâ€ť only so long as unambiguous heterosexual matches such as these perpetuates themselves. Take it or leave it.