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4 reviews, 3 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Pure Bliss From Besson"
5 stars

Many years ago, in the early days of his film career, French director Luc Besson made a public pronouncement that he would only direct ten feature films and then retire to do other things. With the release of his latest work, “Angel-A,” he has hit that magic number and if he stays true to his word, this will be his final film. While I have my doubts that this alleged retirement will last too long–considering the vast number of films that he has written and/or produced in the last few years, not to mention the ones he currently has in various forms of development, the entire French film industry might collapse altogether if faced with his absence–I will say that if this proclamation holds true, it is both a good and bad thing indeed. It would be bad in the sense that it would mean the loss of one of the most stylish and unique filmmakers working today–a man who has managed to fuse together the seemingly incompatible sensibilities of the American action spectacle and the exceedingly French auteurist exercise into the kind of deeply personal blockbuster entertainment that could play equally well at the largest multiplex and the tiniest art house–at a time when we need distinctive cinematic voices more than ever. On the other hand, it would good in a way because “Angel-A” is a triumph of the imagination that in which Besson brings his entire career full circle while demonstrating a surprising and altogether pleasing level of artistic maturity that separates it from his other works.

As the film opens, Andre (Jamel Debbouze) introduces himself to us as an upstanding man living a full and prosperous life in the heart of Paris–“I’m a good guy” is how he modestly describes himself. A few moments later, however, he admits “I lie all day long” and reveals that everything he has told us has been a fabrication. In fact, he is a low-level loser who has borrowed money from equally unsavory but far more prosperous elements all over down and has run out of time and excuses–one threatens to kill him if he doesn’t repay 40,000 euros by midnight while a second drags him to the top of the Eiffel Tower (“Do I look like a tourist?”) in order to dangle Andre over the side while demanding the money that he is owed. With nowhere else to go–he literally can’t even get arrested at this point–Andre finds himself standing on the edge of a bridge excoriating himself (“I feel stupid, ugly and totally useless!”) while working up the nerve to jump and end it all. Before he can, however, he notices a woman, Angela (Rie Rasmussen), standing a few feet away on the bridge and before he can stop her, she takes the plunge and he jumps in to rescue her.

After pulling her to safety, he angrily tears into her for causing him to fail even in his suicide attempt–so much so that it fails to register to him for a while that this tall and leggy blonde in the soaked minidress is easily the most gorgeous woman that he has presumably ever seen in his life. What does catch his attention is when she refuses to leave him when he tries to take off–she tells him “I am yours” and promises to do whatever she can for him. At first, he assumes that this is yet another cruel joke–why would a goddess like her want to be seen with a cretin like him?–but becomes convinced when she makes him enough money to pay off his debts and beats down a number of thugs looking to do him harm without breaking one of her exquisitely manicured nails. Eventually, the question of why she is doing all of this for him begins to dominate his thinking and when he presses her on it, she finally reveals why she helping him and it is at this point that I must cut the plot recap short in order to preserve the surprises in store.

Of course, most eagle-eyed viewers will have probably figured out this secret long before it is revealed at about the halfway point in the film–even if the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway, surely they will pick up on the echoes of “It’s A Wonderful Life” in that bridge scene. This might have proven to be a problem if the film were about nothing other than this reveal but it soon becomes clear that Besson is simply using that idea as a conduit to get at the ideas that he really wants to grapple with here. Although he has only made one official child-oriented film to date (the underrated “Arthur and the Invisibles”), all of Besson’s films have dealt with children in one form or another–either real (Natalie Portman in “Leon” or Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element” and “The Messenger”) or metaphorical (such as the outwardly tough and inwardly fragile characters played by Anne Parillaud in “La Femme Nikita,” Jean Reno in “Leon” and Bruce Willis in “The Fifth Element”)–who find themselves uneasily being pushed from the arrested childhood into adolescence and beyond by the outside forces of a cruel world. Of course, since those movies were also large-scale action/fantasy epics, these moves were usually brought about by massive gunfights or interstellar warfare. With Andre, the solution that Angela helps him arrive at to push him into adulthood is far more realistic and, in a way, far more difficult for someone like him than an interstellar gun battle–he has to learn to accept himself for who he is instead of trying to pass himself off as someone that he isn’t.

In other words, “Angel-A” is a love story in which the most important relationship on display is the one involving the central character learning to love himself so that others may do the same one day. And by trusting himself to tell a story without resorting to wild flights of fancy outside of the climactic scene between Andre and Angela, Besson shows that he is finally ready to trust himself with a story that doesn’t require the spectacular and bizarre action sequences that he has become famous for–the filmmaker who has always brought an aggressively adolescent attitude to his work (I mean that in the best possible way–with the manic energy and breathless invention that has suffused his previous efforts, his films have always felt like they were made by someone with the technical skills of a master and the heart of a 14-year-old boy giddy at the idea of playing with what Orson Welles once described as the best electric train set a kid ever had) has finally grown up and the result, from an emotional standpoint, is perhaps the first truly adult film of his career.

On paper, this might all sound unbearably gloppy and precious–the kind of thing that makes “The Secret” seem profound and meaningful by comparison–but “Angel-A” transcends its potentially mawkish conceit with the style and humor that Besson brings to the proceedings. Although Besson shot the film on location on the streets of Paris in virtual secrecy on a minuscule budget (perhaps as a throwback to the conditions he encountered in making his first feature, the low-budget post-apocalyptic drama “La Dernier Combat”), you wouldn’t know that from the evidence on the screen–the man who helped create the intricately detailed futuristic cityscapes of “The Fifth Element” and “Arthur and the Invisibles” has given us one of the most dazzlingly beautiful cinematic views of Paris ever presented on the screen with black-and white cinematography from Thierry Arbogast (Besson’s long-time DP) that is so lush and gorgeous to behold that it once again reminds us of the innate superiority of the form over the comparatively mundane world of color. (There is one sequence, in which Andre and Angela stare into a bathroom mirror that is, in its quiet and understated way, one of the most haunting and lovely images to grace the screen in recent memory.) There is also a lot of humor and good cheer to the proceedings as well–the central sequences in which Angela raises the money for Andre while dealing with his oppressors contains a lot of big laughs that are outdone only by the scenes towards the end where we discover what she really may have been doing during that time–and much of that comes from the inspired pairing of Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen in the lead roles. You may recall the former as the put-upon grocery assistant in “Amelie” and you should definitely recall the latter as being the babe who memorably shared a bathroom stall with Rebecca Romijn during the sexy diamond heist at the beginning of “Femme Fatale.” Here, Debbouze does a good job of playing an avowed loser who still has enough good aspects to make him worth paying attention to, even if it takes him a long time to realize that for himself. As Angela, Rasmussen seems to be playing the standard Besson babe–a salon-perfect minx who can spring into violent action at the drop of a hemline–but she gets to show some touching vulnerability later on as well. Together, they make for an on-screen couple that may look implausible at first (and not just because she towers over him) but who wind up striking genuine sparks together.

Formally lovely, frequently hilarious and touching without ever becoming saccharine, “Angel-A” is an utter delight from start to delirious finish–the kind of film that unabashed romantics and too-cool-for-school hipsters can equally embrace without hesitation. As a longtime fan of the work of Luc Besson, I can confidently assure you that this is his finest and most consistent film since “Leon” and one of the best of his entire career. If the rumors are true that it will be his last film, it is good to see him leaving on the highest note possible. If, on the other hand, his retirement turns out to be as lasting as the ones that Frank Sinatra used to regularly announce back in the day, the new-found maturity that he demonstrates suggests that he may be on the dawn of a new and exciting phase of his career and if that is the case, I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15607&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/08/07 10:17:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/03/11 s. russo A fantastic little gem of a movie from Besson, but it's Mr. Debbouze who sparkles. 4 stars
11/28/08 CTT Entertaining little film, often funny 4 stars
10/23/07 William Goss Original or not, gorgeous to look at and pervasively charming. 4 stars
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  25-May-2007 (R)
  DVD: 20-Nov-2007



Directed by
  Luc Besson

Written by
  Luc Besson

  Jamel Debbouze
  Rie Rasmussen
  Olivier Claverie
  Gilbert Melki
  Kate Nauta
  Serge Riaboukine

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