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May 30-June 5, 2007

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Courtesy of Sony Pictures Inc. © 2006 CTB Film Company
From above: Rie Rasmussen plays Number Six to Jamel Debbouze's Gaius Baltar (hey, it's better than playing Henry Travers' Clarence to Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey) in 'Angel-A.'

Winged Defeat

'Angel-A': Luc Besson's 'Wings of Ennui'

By Richard von Busack

AFTER SEEING Paris, je t'aime, which contained 10 out of 18 good short films about Paris, the odds suggested the next one would be a clinker. So it has come to pass. Angel-A is an unusually crass fable of personal enrichment, a pimp's version of It's a Wonderful Life. The take-off point for director/writer Luc (The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita) Besson's new film is about the same as for Leconte's far superior Girl on the Bridge. A motor-mouthed Algerian-American named André, played by Jamel Debbouze, is trying to hold off three furious thugs seeking the 40,000 Euros he owes their boss ("Euros! Not your putain dollars!"). After an all-night walk, broke and dispirited, André proposes to throw himself into the Seine. After one last appeal to God, he's about to jump when a blonde girl in a microscopic skirt appears on the ledge next to him, also ready to commit suicide.

She is Angela, played by the Danish actress Rie Rasmussen, most notable so far for getting her diamond brassiere filched by Rebecca Romijn in Femme Fatale. Angela, as she calls herself, is an angel assigned to take care of "un bon cause," the Chihuahua-like André. First, she must fill his wallet by heading to the nearest disco and whoring herself all night long. In between her clearing out the dance floor and taking her new clients into the men's room, André drinks heavily and soliloquizes about how he's not the kind of man who can live off a woman's immoral earnings. This is what is called tension.

Angel-A persists in this fantasy straight out of the era of John Hughes, all about the babe dumped from the heavens into the lap of the perennial adolescent. The movie seeks depth in a scene where Angela gives André therapy—forces him to look into a bathroom mirror and see the inner beauty that lurks there. To be fair, Rasmussen is attractively white against Thierry Arbogast's black-and-white backgrounds, which seem digitally scrubbed of people. (Paris looks a little like the "after" scenes in 28 Days Later.) Angela's story unfolds like an amnesiac's tale; she can't recall what her human life was like. She resembles André—a liar—and won't tell him what's going on when she's using her body to get his debts paid. (She says that maybe she's just rolling the johns, as if that were better than selling herself to them.)

At times, Besson seems to be trying to re-create old Hollywood by posing Rasmussen as Carole Lombard. She has a cigarette that can renew itself, like the bottomless glass of brandy Cary Grant's angel kept refilling in The Bishop's Wife. After André loses their money on a horse, Angela explains to him how he should have noticed that the pony was named "Brutus," and thus he should have paid more attention to Roman history when he was in school—in short, nothing here with the divine compactness of that one similar line in The Lady Eve: "Whaddya expect, betting on a horse called 'After You'?"

Angel-A is mostly about Paris' answer to John Leguizamo and Brigitte Nielsen standing in front of cityscapes that would be better off without them blocking the view. The film protests—vehemently—that it is really all about the importance of self-love and God's grace. Again, Besson has made a hybrid of the worst of French and American cinema; the deadheaded sexism of the former, the sentimental New Age schmaltz of the latter.

Movie Times Angel-A (R; 91 min.), directed and written by Luc Besson, photographed by Thierry Arbogast and starring Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen, opens June 1 at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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