In terms of his career as a feature-length writer/director, for Luc Besson Angel-A is either a circular point in Luc Besson's filmography returning to the small character black & white roots of his first feature, Le dernier combat / The Final Combat, or a fun break in his post as bigwig of Europacorp, the production company for which he's been busily producing and writing projects for other filmmakers.
More verbose than the increasingly derivative and juvenile action-comedies which have arguably increased Europacorp's fortunes in past years, Angel-A deals with a loser who redeems himself by confronting and jettisoning his habits of telling tall tales and outright lies, and the angel (Angel-A) that he grows to love and predictably forces to remain on Earth with him.
Broken down in simpler terms, the story follows an eccentric, fringe character that becomes slightly more responsible/sociable/grounded after being tamed/humanized by a woman/girl a familiar storyline in several of Besson's scripts. In prior works like The Big Blue and The Professional, the conclusions were bittersweet, if not quite tragic: the men died without fulfilling their lives with another soul, and in Nikita, where the genders were flipped, a masculine Nikita walks away from the caring, emotional male that could've offered her a domestic future.
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With The Fifth Element, Besson seemed to embrace his inner Tex Avery spirit and he refined his animated directing style a kinetic visual approach that forms a setup, delivery, and humorous punchline paired with rapid-fire, pseudo-Hawksian dialogue.
In a classic Howard Hawks film, fast dialogue compacted scenes, reinforced Hawks' own obsessive male-female archetypes, and layered the eccentric textures of characters while building waves of momentum towards a screwball series of events in a usually simple plot; in Besson's work, fast dialogue is part of the overall cartoonish landscape where argumentative characters experience physically and verbally explosive snits as a means to advance their lives, and propel themselves into the next scene.
Besson reached his stylistic zenith in The Fifth Element (replete with strong Avery visuals, and a flagrant nod to the Warner Bros. cartoon character Egghead via Gary Oldman's rendition of Zorg), and has subsequently developed a more gentle variation for his scripts for Taxi, and the fluffy Wasabi, with respective directors Gérard Pirès and Gérard Krawczyk adding their own cartoon influences while remaining faithful to Besson's recognizable prose and elasticized mutterings, never straying beyond the PG barriers by avoiding strong profanity, keeping vulgar elements implied or pubescent; and ensuring violence is restricted to objects being smashed up, & characters smacked around without losing a drop of blood.
In his comedic canon, Angel-A is an oddly intimate work, as Besson genuinely seems to care about his characters instead of placing them in embarrassing situations for the sake of a flashy laugh. André is a schlub, but he experiences a moment of earnest self-growth and self-worth when he's forced to look at his reflection, and with Angel-A's coaxing, takes the first steps towards ending a period of self-loathing.
That punchy little scene sort of validates some silly divergences a game of Simon Says, Angel-A pimping herself in a club to ease André's financial woes that maintained the film's buoyant romantic-comedic tenor, but in being a post-gloom Besson screenplay, we know the resolution will be simple, sweet, and clichéd, and that's where the film gets clunky, and the director falters.
While not an unsatisfying finale, the conclusion comes with painfully maudlin dialogue, and explodes into bathos when André clutches his beloved Angel-A as she's summoned to the sky, flapping her angel wings towards the Heavens, only to tumble back into the river from André's unbearable weight.
Besson has actor Jamel Debbouze's incessantly screaming her name, and it's an embarrassingly elongated scene we have to endure before reaching the happy, huggable finale as two lovers stand on a Parisian bridge, freed from their own complicated pasts. The actors manage to pull it off due to their ongoing chemistry, but the high-pitched emotions felt more in place (and tolerable) when it involved precocious teen Mathilda and the emotionally inert Leon in The Professional.
Visually, Angel-A is gorgeous, with Thierry Arbogast, Besson's longtime cinematographer, evoking a magical Paris that shimmers and glistens like the vintage French CinemaScope films from the fifties and early sixties. The production design is equally sharp, and includes a stylish dance club set where Besson indulges in some arresting visual tricks (such as a walk-up shot to a neon-lit peephole).
Also of note is Anja Garbarek's score that effectively bridges the sonics of Eric Serra's prior scores for Besson expansive synth and orchestral works larded with Serra's fetish for aquatic sounds, like pseudo-whale songs and tinny, metallic pulses reverberating from oceanic depths with her own lyrical songs, plus intimate, mostly orchestral score cuts with strong jazz underpinnings.
Produced & released in late 2005, Angel-A did the theatrical rounds in Europe but apparently received a limited release in North America before disappearing and popping up on DVD a real shame, given Besson's films are exceptionally photographed scope productions. Perhaps due to an aversion to the film's black & white photography, Angel-A seemed to go straight to video, although at least it's a first-rate transfer, with excellent surround sound showing off the warm, bass sonics of Garbarek's witty score. Only quibble: overall, the English subtitles are fairly faithful to the French dialogue, but the translations of anti-Amereican slander in the film's opening scene between Debbouze and a trio of thugs have been decidedly toned down.
The DVD includes a making-of featurette that mostly feels like a love-in for Besson; the director apparently eschews any kind of on-camera interview, so the featurette relies on fluffy, comedic, adulatory comments from stars Jamel Debbouze and leggy ex-model Rie Rasmussen, filmed mostly on set, with plenty of moments from the location shoot and the stylish interior sets. Once again, Besson is left as a corporeal enigma whose murky personality seems to emerge through his scripts, rather then any interview or commentary track.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan