Angel-A is a small, somewhat inconspicuous and undiscovered gem, produced by one of the biggest directors France has ever known. A film that has many arthouse traits, but still comes off as fresh, modern and playful. A film that has everything to please more commercially-minded audiences, if they dare to take the leap. Angel-A is a weird blend of crime and romance, a more dashing version of La Fille sur le Pont and, if you ask me, the best film Luc Besson ever made.
The world needs more directors like Luc Besson. He's the kind of director who's able to release films for both arthouse and mainstream audiences. He knows how to please local and international audiences, while giving young talent a welcome platform through EuropaCorp, the production and distribution company he established himself. Looking back at Besson's career, it's clear that his impact on the world of film reaches far beyond his own work.
Angel-A marks Besson's return to small-scale cinema. The film bears sizeable resemblances to Le Dernier Combat (Besson's very first film), which was also shot in black and white, with a very small crew and a select cast of characters. The only big difference with Angel-A is that Besson made some high-profile films in between, in which he clearly picked up a few extra tricks. If you're not aware of Angel-A's background though, you'd be forgiven in thinking this was some director's first-time effort.
The film tells the tale of André, an unlucky loser who one day finds himself in serious trouble. Seeing no way out, he walks to the nearest bridge, ready to throw himself into the river. Right before he wants to end it all, André is bested by a woman who jumps in before him. Slightly panicking, André drops in after her and rescues the woman from drowning. She introduces herself as Angela, and taking into account the spelling of the title you should have some idea where the story goes from there.
Besson's preferences in black and white photography have changed a lot over time. Le Dernier Combat had a gritty, dark and noisy look, Angel-A is quite the opposite. Besson puts a lot of attention on lighting, composition and contrast, opting for an overall cleaner and slicker flair. The effect is dazzling, making for tons of memorable shots and jaw-dropping set pieces, but never without a hint of visual comedy. Clearly something Besson had to get off his chest.
The soundtrack is equally playful. While a little too jazzy at times, the overall effect is pleasantly loungy. Modern, slightly upbeat and just a tad quirky, Besson carefully picked the music to complement the scenes, while at the same time providing them with a unique, almost elusive atmosphere. It's classy without being tacky or highbrow, not an easy trick to pull off.
With only a small cast at your disposal you don't have that much elbow room. Your actors need to deliver, especially the ones carrying the film. Well, Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen do exactly that. Debbouze is a natural and what Rasmussen lacks in talent she makes up for in stature. The combination of this little, scruffy-looking guy teaming up with this huge, blonde girl towering over him is simply golden. The secondary characters are adequate, though most of them don't have more than a few lines to contribute.
Angel-A is a pretty short film. There aren't too many characters, not that much plot and not all that many scenes. Most scenes are elongated dialogues between Debbouze and Rasmussen, yet Besson manages to keep it fun and interesting throughout. While the beginning of the film is more crime-centred, the second part shifts to romance pretty quickly (not the overly mushy kind though), resulting in a pleasant although slightly predictable finale.
The fun thing about Angel-A is that it's different. From the outside it may appear a little stuffy (French, black and white photography, jazzy music), but underneath that layer of arthouse polish lies an entertaining, smart and refreshing little film. Besson definitely deserves more credit for Angel-A, though it's hard to imagine this film will ever become anything more than an undiscovered gem. If you get the chance though, be sure to check it out.