Movie Review: Angel-A
FILM REVIEW: ANGEL-A
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
There's a devil and an angel warring inside French filmmaker Luc Besson, and we can see them slugging it out in "Angel-A" - Besson's weirdo Gallic take on "It's a Wonderful Life," "Wings of Desire" and all those breathless films noir where a desperate little crook tries to raise money he owes the mob or his boss before he gets arrested or erased.
Besson's inner devil is a screenwriter who can get woozy on cliches and draw characters as thin as crepes. The angel is a director and cinematic image-maker who can ravish the eyes or quicken the pulse - which he does here, in this black-and-white Parisian eyeful about a gorgeous, barely dressed angel named Angela (Rie Rasmussen) and anxious little Andre (Jamel Debbouze), a small-timer who owes some impatient gangsters, including Gilbert Melki's sinister Franck, 40,000 euros he doesn't have.
Just like Jimmy Stewart, Andre is about to go over the edge of a bridge - this time into the Seine - when a guardian angel beats him to it. She's not whimsical little Clarence but a fantasy-igniting, super-leggy 6-foot hooker who turns tricks, beats up her johns, gives all the swag to Andre and delivers little self-help sermonettes in the bargain. If that's not your idea of an angel, the movie may force you into some ethical adjustments.
It's clear that Andre, after hooking up with Angela, is well on his way to redemption or bliss. (Possibly both.) Debbouze excels at both comedy ("Amelie") and drama (last year's potent war drama "Days of Glory"), and here he aptly suggests a creepy if good-hearted Moroccan-born grifter at the end of his rope - even if Besson hasn't given the part quite enough juice and reality.
Paris looks especially beautiful in black and white, and that's how Besson and his fantastic cinematographer Thierry Arbogast show it. Their joint vision is a knockout, whether we're watching Andre dangled by hoods from the Eiffel Tower, or sloshing in the Seine and racing with his angel through the strangely empty streets. "Angel-A" is so stunningly shot and visualized - and scored so hauntingly well by Anja Garbarek, the daughter of saxophonist/composer Jan Garbarek - that it works even if you don't pay attention to the story. Maybe it works better that way.
But why belabor the devilish Besson, the moviemaker who committed "The Fifth Element," when angel Besson has an artist like Arbogast to light his shots and a city like Paris to shoot. We all have our own view of paradise, but as long as Besson has Arbogast, his camera and those surreal bare Parisian streets, his schlocky heaven enchants the eye, if not the mind.
Directed, produced and written by Luc Besson; photographed by Thierry Arbogast; edited by Frederic Thoraval; music by Anja Garbarek; production design by Jacques Bufnoir. In French, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at AMC Piper's Alley and CineArts 6 in Evanston. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: R (language and some sexual content).
Andre - Jamel Debbouze
Angela - Rie Rasmussen
Franck - Gilbert Melki
Pedro - Serge Riaboukine
Chef Des Malfrats - Akim Chir (dit Colour)