Film Score: Anja Garbarek Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Starring: Rie Rasmussen, Jamel Debbouze, Gilbert Melki and Serge Riaboukine
Angel-A is like a French version of It’s a Wonderful Life, so instead of a 200-year old clockmaker named Clarence, this George Bailey gets a gorgeous, leggy blond as a guardian angel who will do anything for him. And as a brilliant homage to the original it’s even in black and white. Instead of George Bailey, “the richest man in town,” in Besson’s film we have André Moussah, a con man who is in over his head with no way to pay back the loan sharks he borrowed from. With only twelve hours to come up with the money, he decides to kill himself. That’s when his guardian angel comes in to save him.
The great Luc Besson has injected his script with so much humor, compassion, and drama that it’s almost comparable to a musical piece, full of tension and release. Instantly one notices the magnificent black and white photography from Thierry Arbogast and the perfect casting of French comedic actor Jamel Debbouze as Moussah. His Moroccan background and small stature makes him stand out among the other French actors but most of all provides a wonderfully exaggerated physical difference between him and the much taller Rie Rasmussen as Angela. When Debbouze can’t even get thrown in jail by the police to protect himself, he decides to jump off a bridge into the Seine and end it all. Of course Rasmussen jumps in first and saves him and, just like George Bailey, Debbouze begins his long day of self-discovery and redemption.
Besson, a renaissance man, is known not only for having written and directed the influential La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, but for writing all of the Transporter films as well as the Taken franchise. In addition he has also produced over a hundred films and acted in half a dozen more. This film is one of his best, and among my top five films of all time. While he sets up the film as an homage, it’s light years from Capra. The angel, Rasmussen, has her work cut for her because in order for him to get his confidence back she must help Debbouze realize that the person he's done the biggest con job on is himself. Meanwhile, it takes almost the entire film for him to believe she’s even real and it’s distracting him from what he needs to do to get the money he needs . . . or is it?
Debbouze’s problems have much more to do with than just money, and in the end the film has as little to do with its inspiration. Besson has captured something magical here that transcends genre distinctions. The language also helps it achieve an other-worldly quality--at least to English speakers--as does the black and white imagery. The ending is quite unexpected and yet very much in keeping with the characters. Angel-A is a magnificent film and one that I keep coming back to time and again. I can’t say enough good things about it. It must be seen to be believed. Watch it.