Although I’m a lifelong atheist, I love movies about angels. Last night I saw a humdinger of an angel movie, Angel-A, a French film by Luc Besson, the guy who gave us The Fifth Element, The Messenger, and Le Femme Nikita. Angel-A is a stunningly beautiful black and white film set in Paris. The cinematography is superb, so even if you don’t like watching foreign films because you have to read the subtitles, this one is worth just watching for the imagery. You could skip the words and still love this movie.
André, a French-Arab-American, played by Jamel Debbouze, is a low-life hustler on the run from several mobsters who have all sworn they will kill him before the day is over. André decides to beat his enemies to the punch and jump into the Seine, but before he can, Angela, played by a strikingly tall blonde Rie Rasmussen, jumps in before him, so André rescues her instead of doing himself in. Angela follows in the footsteps of Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence tricked George Bailey into saving him, and likewise, Angela tricks André into saving her. I wonder if Besson is paying homage to Frank Capra?
Angela isn’t your typical angel, she lies, she uses the F-word, she smokes and drinks, but she is on an apparently heavenly assignment to save André from himself. As angel pictures go, this one has a rather simple message: tell the truth. Of course the conflict of the story, for André and Angela both, is seeing the truth.
Angel movies are always about teaching humans to understand the truth within. Variations of the standard angel movie deal with angels making their own personal discoveries, like in this film and Wings of Desire/City of Angels.
Unless you know much about angels you would do well to read the Wikipedia article on them because there is a whole angelology behind these spiritual beings. Ultimately, angels are great story devices. To some, angels are beings much different from humans, and to others, angels are those people who have died and earned their wings in heaven. There is also a weird variant of the second type where angels are beings waiting to be born as humans on Earth. In each case, there are rules to follow. Angela in Angel-A appears to be non-human and not a deceased soul, but the issue is clouded by her lies.
Tradition has it that angels are without gender and are given male names, but Angela is very definitely female. Biblical angels were messengers of God, but movie angels tend to work as guardians of humans, although the angel of death is sometimes personified as a human, as in Death Takes a Holiday or On Borrowed Time – the later is one of my all time favorite angel flick where Death is called Mr. Brink.
Many angels, like those in A Guy Name Joe, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and It’s a Wonderful Life, work for a spiritual agency that is structured almost like the military and angels have rank. Angela hints that she is working for such an organization and must follow rules.
This is a fascinating concept, although one I find creepy. The idea that an organization of angels watches our every move can be embarrassing when you think about what they are seeing at times in our lives. I think people like angel stories because people really want a personal God, but it’s hard to imagine one supreme being paying so much attention to every human. It is easier to think that an angel with god-like powers could take a personal interest in how we live because it’s easier to imagine a large enough flock of angels so everyone gets to have their own personal guardian. Also, it’s much easier to imagine hanging out with an angel than hanging out with God.
The trouble with angels and stories about angels is limiting their power. Angela goes through some seemingly un-angelic behavior to help André earn money when we later learn she has the power to solve problems much more quickly. And I had to wonder why the other low-life inhabitants of Paris don’t have their own angels to protect them. Why is André getting divine intervention in his life?
When Dudley helps David Niven in The Bishop’s Wife does that mean the Bishop lacks the inner qualities to succeed? Do the Angelas, Clarences, and Dudleys represent cheaters in the school of hard knocks for humans? Bartleby and Loki in Dogma represent two angels with their own problems trying to beat the system. Kevin Smith sets up the rules for Dogma early on and that helps make the picture better. I think Angela-A would have been improved if we had learned the rules early on too.
Angela-A succeeds with me because of the stunning monochromatic photography and the fact that Angela and André are flawed but extremely likable characters. We love Angela like we do the angel Michael in Michael because of their all too human attributes. Like Michael says, “I’m an angel, not a saint.”
That’s the funny thing about angel pictures. The more angels succeed at making humans perfect, the more we like angels imperfect, like us.