Luc Besson says Angel-A, his long-awaited directorial return, is a love letter to Paris. Filmed in Nouvelle Vague monotone, it certainly has the feel of the atmospheric love stories of Goddard and Truffaut.
He bestows on Paris the loveliness lent by a lover's eye - as you would expect from the man who made the promo for the Parisian Olympic bid (all agreed, his promo won, even if the bid failed). But it's not a tough task: Paris is the Kate Moss of capital cities, and it'd look good in sack cloth.
In desperate circumstances, dodgy "businessman" André (Jamel Debbouze) meets statuesque blonde Angel-A (Rie Rasmussen). André owes money all over the shadier part of town, and his luck is as bankrupt as his cheque account. But by helping Angel-A, he wins her loyalty and her determination to lift him out of the gutter and into a better life.
Rasmussen's Angel offers a brand of human kindness that is far from saccharine. In fact her methods for putting André back on his feet are distinctly outré and push him into facing up to his inner demons and worse, his inner goodness.
To explain more would be to give away the delightful twists of the plot, which treads some familiar territory, albeit in a more direct and muscular style than the likes of Frank Capra and Wim Wenders.
But where Besson differs from his predecessors is by challenging stereotypes of male and female strength. Of course, vulnerability in starkly macho clothing contrasted against ball-crushing femininity is nothing new for Besson. Nikita offered us a beautiful woman able to kick ass, while Jean Reno's performance as conflicted, gentle assassin Leon in the eponymous film is a landmark in recent cinema history.
Debbouze's André has a different charm to Reno's Leon. Andre lives on his wits and little else. Unlike Angel, he is far from easy on the eye, the kind of shabby scam merchant who makes you hide you purse on approach. But through Angel, Besson breaks Andre's brittle defenses to reveal beauty, strength and femininity in his vulnerability. As a meditation on masculinity it is a fable for the men's movement.
But does it work? Well yes and no. Visually it is stunning, especially in the wide shots of Paris by day or night. Gloriously free of Besson's more usual car chases and whip 'em up violence, the one special effect he allows himself is breathtaking.
What let's Angel-A down is the chemistry between Rasmussen and Debbouze, whom we last saw as Lucien, the grocer's persecuted assistant in Amelié. Much of the film's message rests on the disparity between the couple - he small and runtish, she tall blonde. But it is their characters that fail to gel, there is not enough to link them, and their subsequent mutual attraction feels like a mere plot device.
In part this is due to Rasmussen's performance, which seems to consist of poses struck rather than acting. Debbouze is much better, but the film needed two strong leads. Fortunately, at only 88 minutes long, the film is too short for Rasmussen's acting to ruin what is otherwise a delightful flight of fancy through a city of charming lights.