I can’t believe I’m about make this statement… Angel-A would be better if it were American. Besson could still direct, still write the base story (someone else would have to come in and add… you know… subplots), still have his lead Rie Rasmussen (who’s Danish, not French, as IMDb informs… which makes sense–I’ve never seen a six-foot blond Frenchwoman), but his music composer and soundtrack producer would have to go… and so would his other lead, Jamel Debbouze. Angel-A has a really interesting problem–besides the utter lack of subplots (an Our Gang film has more)–for the first half, Debbouze is good and Rasmussen is bad. For the second half, Rasmussen is good and Debbouze is bad. The problem is a combination of script and actor. Rasmussen plays bare and emotion well and in the first half she’s enigmatic and emotionless. Debbouze is an engaging moderate scumball and the second half tries to turn him into a desperately romantic leading man. He doesn’t do change and Besson seems to realize it, because in the second half, he really brings up the music for effect. Sometimes the music works… most times it doesn’t (or it just goes on too long).
As a fantastic romance, Angel-A is something of a rehash of The Fifth Element, only without a story (or a real understanding of effective music–where’s Eric Serra when Besson really needs him?). I think I’d have been more irritated with its lack of momentum–the long dialogue sequences don’t work, especially since Besson assigns so much weight to them–if I hadn’t gone in knowing it was only going to be ninety minutes (something I should have told my fiancée). Besson pedals in place for the majority of the film, trashes a lot of good starts to scenes. It’s like he couldn’t fill the running time so he added minutes to conversations, never really pausing to see when the film wanted more space.
The bevy of complaints aside, the black and white photography is amazing. It looks like a cross between good French New Wave and L’Atalante. There’s an astoundingly beautiful sequence at the end–unimaginably wonderful–which makes the film worth seeing (and, possibly, even owning in some hi-def format… I’ve never seen anything like it). The black and white gives everything a surreal feel, at least the outdoor shots when people look like their filmed against the best rear-screen projection ever done, creating a striking visual style (too bad Besson loses it inside). His command of composition is better than it’s ever been, it’s just too bad he didn’t have a better script. Besson’s been writing crappy (if sometimes entertaining) action movies for seven years… and a lot of them–maybe the bad habits rubbed off. He also only had a fifteen million euro budget. And it’s a shame, because with some relatively simple tweaks, Angel-A would have been really good.
Written, produced and directed by Luc Besson; director of photography, Thierry Arbogast; edited by Frédéric Thoraval and Christine Lucas Navarro; music by Anja Garbarek; production designer, Jacques Bufnoir; released by EuropaCorp.
Starring Jamel Debbouze (André), Rie Rasmussen (Angela), Gilbert Melki (Franck), Serge Riaboukine (Pedro) and Akim Chir (le chef des malfrats).