When it comes to French movies, I am a complete sucker. The merest glimpse of neon-lit rain on Parisian cobbles, the brusque cadences of the language (which I don’t speak a word of, by the way), or the false-memory nostalgia of yearning accordion music, rumbles through my soul like the night train to Nice.
Yet despite an almost genetic predisposition to all things Gallic, by the end of director Luc Besson’s latest movie, Angel-A, I was left wanting to hurl myself from the nearest bridge — exactly the situation in which the two central characters find themselves when we first meet them.
After defaulting on payments to the mob and with a contract on his head, Andre (the grizzled-looking Jamel Debbouze) decides to throw himself into the Seine. To his surprise, further along the ledge there’s a statuesque blonde (Rie Rasmussen), long of leg, high of heel, and, this being a French movie, wearing the skimpiest of black cocktail dresses, who also wants to end it all. Unable to accept that someone so beautiful doesn’t have a reason to live, Andre jumps in and saves her.
After which Andre discovers that the woman, Angela, happens to be an angel. Not just a metaphorical angel but the real deal with wings who happens to be down on her luck, feeling jaded about the sordid business of saving souls.
The sharp contrast between their attitudes and appearances (light/dark, male/female, short/tall, good/bad, happy/sad, human/supernatural being!) coupled with Angela’s less than angelic behaviour when it comes to other men, and Andre’s unexpected morality should provide us with a screwball rom-com set against the noir-ish world of a subterranean Paris.
Instead we get a too-predictable retread of It’s A Wonderful Life or Wings Of Desire but plucked of their respective humour, warmth, and pathos and oozing cheap sentimentality. This aspect has been a recurring difficulty in Besson’s work, tarnishing his otherwise classic Leon, although thankfully the saccharine was effectively staunched by Jean Reno’s sour yet vulnerable aura in the title role.
Here however, the absence of comparable talent is telling. Debbouze may be fine in small parts (he makes a fleeting but effective appearance in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie as the greengrocer’s son who gets revenge on his tyrant father), but like Rasmussen lacks the range of skills or old-fashioned “presence” required to carry it off. Charisma is more than being able to pull off the ramshackle loser look or pouting sexily as your mascara runs.
The blame lays not so much with the hapless cast punching above their weight as with the lead-lined script which clouts us with clunkers such as “You may not have a past but at least let me give you a future.”
Even accepting that Besson’s dialogue may have lost something in translation when it comes to the subtitles, there seems little excuse for such poor writing from a director as experienced as this. This would-be parable about how heaven is in the most unexpected of places if we open our eyes and ourselves probably looked great in storyboard but falls to earth with a resounding thump.