Luc Besson’s Angel-A is a remake, though Besson and his producers would never admit to it. The sad truth is, we’ve seen this film before.
Jamel Debbouze (Amelie, Days of Glory) plays Andre, a down-on-his-luck gambler who has fettered away his last dime and now finds himself hopelessly in debt to several local gangsters. Given an ultimatum—repay everything within 24 hours or else—Andre decides to end it all by throwing himself off a bridge (half of this movie takes place on bridges) into Paris’ River Seine. Yet, just as he is about to take the plunge, another despondent Parisian throws herself into the water just before him. Diving in to save her, Andre pulls Angela (Rie Rasmussen) to safety. Beautiful, blonde and with legs that go up to her neck, Angela agrees to pay Andre back for saving her by helping him out of the hole in which he’s dug himself.
If you’re not already saying to yourself, “Hey, that sounds a lot like the beginning of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life,” you should be. Despondent man? Check. River of death? Check. Angel who throws herself into the river, forcing a rescue and ultimately a redemption of our protagonist? Check.
Of course, we’re not told outright that Angela is Andre’s guardian angel, but we’re given some pretty hefty clues. (One beautiful moment occurs when Angela stands perfectly poised behind a the statue of Nike, the headless winged statue that currently resides in the Louvre, marble wings seeming to sprout magically from her back). “People don’t believe in miracles anymore,” Andre claims until Angela, breaking “the rules,” demonstrates her origins beyond a shadow of a doubt, both for him and for us.
From that moment on, the two share a bond. As they venture the streets of Paris, crisscrossing its quant boulevards and tourist-thronged monuments, Andre begins to come face to face with himself, a self he doesn’t exactly like. “If you think you’re crap,” he confesses to Angela (and I paraphrase his colorful language) “you’re drawn to crap.” As Angela insists on his tremendous, untapped beauty and goodness, Andre the rogue and swindler begins to come undone, revealing a wounded man who quite simply needs to be loved. In so doing, we discover Angela has analogous secrets of her own. Whereas Andre needs love, Angela needs to give it, leading her to wish she could remain on earth with her charge.
If you’re not already saying to yourself, “Hey, that sounds a lot like the plot of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire,” you should be. Mortal man? Check. Immortal angel? Check. Angel who ultimately risks it all to remain on earth with the man she loves? Check.
Director Besson began writing the screenplay for Angel-A over a decade ago but felt he wasn’t mature enough to complete it, setting it aside until he was. Now, six years after he last picked up a camera, Besson has returned to Angel-A and has created something unique in his career—a film that is built almost exclusively on talking and not the stylized violence for which he is so well known. Besson is a hit and miss director for me—usually miss. While Leon/The Professional is one of the best action movies ever made, his follow-ons (The Fifth Element, The Messenger) each left a lot to be desired.
Now he has attempted to make a film in the quintessential French fashion—psychological and deeply existential. The only problem is, it doesn’t work. Besson simply doesn’t have it in him. Angel-A lacks any sort of charm and grace. While it has moments of genuine depth, they are the exception rather than the rule. Ultimately Angel-A never takes flight, weighted down by an overabundance of metaphysical clichés stolen from other films.
Angel-A isn’t a complete loss, to be sure. Besson and his cinematographer, Thierry Arbogast, shot the film in black and white, adding rich, complex contrasts to a city that is already picture-perfect. Shooting primarily in the early morning light, Besson has said that the film helped him rediscover Paris, and his love for the City of Lights is obvious…and infectious. As such, Angel-A plays like a supernatural noir, undeniably beautiful and intriguing. Both Debbouze and Rasmussen are terrific, especially Debbouze known primarily for his comic talents. Here, he successfully dons the mask of a tragic figure.
Following the premiere of Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse, I wondered if Tarantino had an original bone in his body. While a tremendous filmmaker, his work seems derivative and plagiaristic, a hollow shell built not upon but around the work of those who’ve gone before him. I cannot help but think the same of Besson with Angel-A. Transferring the city from Berlin to Paris and changing the language from German to French does not alter the most inescapable fact that this film has already been made—and far better, too. Save yourself the ticket price and head to your local video store instead. Ask for Wings of Desire.