Angel-A, the newly released offering from Luc Besson, director of La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, follows André (Jamel Debbouze) as a down-on-his-luck con man, whose life is threatened by those to whom he owes a large sum of money. The plot, which includes explicit borrowings from Its a Wonderful Life and which echoes themes from Wings of Desire and its remake City of Angels, contains moments of humor and glimmers of genuine passion. It also has, as critics have noted, a gorgeous black-and-white look. But none of this saves a film whose tale of providence, love, and the communion with the angelic is ultimately nothing more than a juvenile, narcissistic, male fantasy.
Facing physical violence and possible death for failing to pay his debts, André tries to find money. Coming up empty, he reports to the local jail and asks to be imprisoned. The perplexed jail guard inquires, “Am I on Candid Camera?” André’s persistence irritates the guards who toss him out head first into the street. His growing anxiety as he wanders the streets of Paris in utter desperation is supposed to remind us of the plots of old, gritty French films. But it does not sustain this mood.
In a despairing moment lifted from It’s a Wonderful Life, André prepares to end his life by jumping from a Parisian bridge into the Seine. He complains that “nobody gives a s**t” and raises his eyes heavenward to ask, “Why did you abandon me? Why do you never answer me?” Then he notices there is someone else — a tall, blonde woman — preparing to do the same thing. She jumps before he has the chance; he dives in after her and pulls her to the shore. A debate ensues in which the recently suicidal André tries to persuade the woman (Angela, played by Rie Rasmussen) that she can find a purpose in life by giving herself to a cause. After initial resistance, she identifies him as her cause: “I’m all yours.” As it quickly becomes clear, she has been sent on a mission from heaven to save him from self-destruction. In another nod to Wonderful Life, she informs him that once her mission is complete she will grow wings.
Take out the fine cinematography and what’s left is the crudest of male fantasies, according to which the life of a complete loser is suddenly transformed by the intervention of a leggy blonde whose magical power and blatant sensuality make her a sort of cross between Barbara Eden’s Jeannie and Kimba from Nip/Tuck. Angela is a good bit rougher and smokes constantly, but then she is French, after all. The female savior is not only able to rescue our despairing drug dealer but she also finds him so irresistible that she would give up heaven and immortality to remain on earth with him.
In fact, André’s epiphany, the big moment in which Angela’s instruction breaks through, has him saying to himself, “I love you.” Angela commands him, “look at yourself and say it.” The film comes close to identifying the narcissism in one scene where Angela claims, “I’m your reflection. I’m you.” André deadpans, “I’m a 6-foot tall slut?” “On the inside,” she responds.
The film does have an intriguing look — as one critic remarks, every scene look like a staged postcard. While the look is mesmerizing, it delivers neither the roughness nor the glories of Paris to express the emotions it wants to foster in viewers. The look is simultaneously arresting and bland, as is the superficial mystery surrounding Angel-A, who simply does not know enough about herself, heaven, or earth to illumine much of anything.
As is often the case in such films, heaven, or “upstairs,” as Angela calls home, is a nondescript place, marked by absence rather than fullness and stagnation rather than heightened activity. “Routine,” is how she describes it. In this version of angelic bliss, angels have no memories of any past life. That is “top secret.” Angels are simply called into being, assigned a mission, sent to wardrobe for their disguise, and then dropped to earth. When she describes her wardrobe preparation to play the part of a blond whore, André comments, “You nailed it.”
She asserts that the risk of not returning to heaven is that she will become a “fallen angel,” but it is not clear what that loss would involve precisely. She would be leaving an impersonal and spiritually vacant, if inexplicably benign, heaven for life in seedy Paris, to which she is ideally suited. There are rather simplistic anti-theological elements in the film, but the film is really about encompassing the divine within the human and the human within the private wishes of one man. The vision of what transcends the human is so impoverished that the purported angelic sacrifice never satisfies the criteria for interesting drama, let alone great art. And its artistic posturing makes the film even harder to take, as it elevates André’s narcissistic fantasy to the level of cosmic significance.