Early on in Luc Besson’s romantic comedy Angel-A, the main character André tells us that he is a liar. From that point on, it’s difficult to tell if his other claims of being a Moroccan born US citizen living in Paris with business interests in Argentina are true or not. However, when first he’s beaten up by one group of thugs and then dangled off the Eiffel Tower by another, it quickly becomes clear that his admission he owes money all over Paris to all the wrong people is very true. For André, the bill for a lifetime of shady dealings has come due and he’s given the choice: repay or die.
Unable to repay and unable to get help from either the Parisian police or the US embassy, André chooses death. Rather than giving his creditors the satisfaction of finishing him off however, he decides to kill himself by jumping into the Seine. Coincidentally, of the hundreds of bridges in Paris, André happens to pick the same one, at the same time and for the same reason as the beautiful Angela. Dressed for the occasion in a short, black dress, she takes the plunge moments before he can jump himself.
Inspired perhaps by the chance to finally do something useful with his life, André instinctively responds to this damsel in distress and he dives in and rescues her. She seems irritated, but eager for a dry cigarette and a light. He seems confused that such a beautiful woman would want to kill herself, but intrigued by suddenly having a purpose to live. They’re an unlikely couple, but André now feels protective of her. He follows her, but as Angela begins to help him solve his own problems both financial and spiritual, the question becomes who is protecting whom? Perhaps Angela’s leap into the Seine was not a coincidence after all. Perhaps she is some kind of guardian angel.
Angel-A takes elements of It’s a Wonderful Life, Wings of Desire and a few other films; adds two likeable performances by the seemingly mismatched Jamel Debbouze (the short, earthy and dark haired André) and Rie Rasmussen (the leggy, ethereal and blond haired Angela); drops them into Thierry Arbogast’s beautifully photographed black and white picture postcard of Paris; and sets the whole thing to a great score composed and performed by Anja Garbarek. While it might not be especially original material, it’s all good stuff and it promises to make a terrific little movie. It’s a little disappointing then when it turns out the interesting component parts never blend together into a greater whole.
So what went wrong? I don’t know. Other than the fact it’s a very talky film, I can’t pick out a single specific thing that keeps it from working. It’s not horrible or unpleasant to sit through, but it’s almost completely forgettable. In some ways, it’s a movie that begs to go a little crazy. In her attempts to help André out of his mess, Angela proves herself a credible and capable action heroine. Had the film played up this angle and turned into a crazy action/comedy there might have been a better payoff. Instead we’re given a few simple platitudes about loving yourself and that’s about it.
Unfortunately, like an alchemist’s experiment gone wrong, the promised magic never happens and, instead of being transformed into gold, Angel-A remains an ordinary lump of lead.
Angel-A: France 2005. Written and Directed by Luc Besson. Starring Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen. In French with English Subtitles. 1 hour 30 minutes. MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content. 2.5 stars (out of 5).