This is, I guess, Luc Besson’s Manhattan. It is not as Woody Allen would have made it, but then, Woody probably wouldn’t have had much truck with The Fifth Element either. Luc Besson does not share Woody Allen’s passion for philosophy. He has no time for dry wit or ambiguity. He loves Paris as Woody loved NY (once upon a time), but in order to write a Valentine, he needed to mark it with own stamp. You know the one. You’ve seen Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element and the rest. Besson’s muse isn’t Diane Keaton, it’s a catwalk model. His answer to the death of God is to reload a gun. Angel-A is gorgeous, witless and very Besson-y, which I mean as a compliment. Think of it as Manhattan lobotomised and just for fun.
There’s a guy, a Ratso Rizzo-type called Andre (Jamel Debbouze), who’s going to kill himself. He’s in debt to gangsters who want to throw him off the Eiffel Tower. He figures he’ll beat them to it by jumping off a bridge. But there’s a problem: a second jumper. She’s a supermodel-type in a mini-dress (Rie Rasmussen), hair like lightning and mascara all smudged. She jumps first (like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life). Ratso/Andre dives in after her (like George Bailey). They both survive. The supermodel tells Andre her name is Angela. She is an angel. Heaven knows what Heaven she comes from, but she brings to mind a line from Raymond Chandler about “a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window”.
The thing you either love or loathe about Angel-A is that it looks like a perfume advert. This isn’t Besson being anything but Besson (he really does take this stuff seriously), but that’s the test. Is such a look too slick for your taste? Is this guy a bit too Ridley Scott (with style to burn and not much thought)? Or do you – much as you hate to admit it – like that sort of thing? Did you enjoy The Fifth Element once you switched off your brain? Can style in sufficient quantity trump substance? Yeah – I know – This is heresy! This is the death of film criticism! But hell, Besson’s been winding up Cahiers du cinéma since Subway without batting an eyelid. And surely if he can make his peace with good-looking trash, then we can… Can’t we?
Rie Rasmussen is so much a Besson-vision of an angel; it’s as if she were his stubborn riposte to his critics. When she emerges from the Seine in a skirt that ends where legs-up-to-Here begin, you know you have entered the Elysium of adolescent wish-fulfillment that Besson adores. Besson’s answer to E.T. was Milla Jovovich. His Joan of Arc was Milla Jovovich. And God knows all his angels would have been Milla Jovovich (if she hadn’t divorced him). So Rie fits right in. What Russ Meyer was to breasts, Besson is to legs. He likes ’em. Frankly, he makes movies for legs (Milla and Rie aren’t much for busts). Angel-A might not say much that’s meaningful, but it does tell you a lot about a 40-something director who refuses to grow up.
Woody Allen got lucky with his career because the things he liked made him seem like an intellectual when he put them on film. Manhattan is catnip for critics because of its philosophical references and the general tumult of educated angst it describes. But it’s a movie about a city and a movie about the bits of life its director cherishes, more than anything. Angel-A is that way too, only Besson’s a schmuck who likes long legs and short dresses. Don’t doubt that he loves Paris. Every frame of Angel-A is testament to his admiration. And don’t be fooled into thinking because Angel-A is so slight that it’s any the less heartfelt. This is Luc’s Manhattan – a story about a pretty girl falling in love with an ugly short guy. It doesn’t have Woody’s wit, or Gershwin. It won’t endure, but… no-one else could have made it.