After a 7-year break from directing, Luc Besson returned in 2005 with this relatively unknown effort,”Angel-A”.  Filming in French for the first time in almost 15 years (which may explain it’s obscurity), Besson writes and directs this romantic comedy of an angel helping a down-on-his-luck petty thief get back on his feet.  The stars, Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen, are less well-established actors than we have come to expect from Besson, who we are more used to seeing direct names such as Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman.  Set in Paris and filmed in stark black-and-white, the film revels in gloriously framed shots of the city, which is clearly a key element of the movie for the native Parisian.

The film starts with Andre (Debbouze) giving the audience a brief and glowing description of himself.  When he reveals his narration to be a lie (the first of many and a key theme for the character), he is promptly punched in the face by some goons.  It seems that Andre owes various Paris gangsters money and the villain of the piece, Franck, is giving him until midnight to pay up.  After attempting and failing to emigrate to America and get locked up by the police, Andre decides that he’s had enough and, in the style of James Stewart in “A Wonderful Life”, prepares to leap off a bridge into the Seine.  He asks God why he has been abandoned just before noticing a tall blonde with similar plans on her mind jump into the river from the same bridge.  He rescues her and finds a companion, Angela (Rasmussen), who agrees to help him sort his life out.  From here. we will see the composed and confident Angela work to get Andre to confront his self-loathing and dishonesty in an attempt to show him that inside he is beautiful.  Of course, it turns out that Angela is an angel (clever name, eh?) sent down to guide him and that romance will blossom between the two.

Since the plot of this movie is really very predictable from the start, it rests upon the performances of the two leads to make it engaging.  Andre and Angela are practically the only characters given more than a scene, the rest of the cast well in the background.  Happily they largely pull this off, Debbouze (probably best known for playing the dim-witted Lucien in “Amelie”) in particular providing a funny and energetic performance.  His portrayal of a hapless loser carries the film, with some excellent physical comedy and a surprising degree of on-screen presence, considering that he is a full foot shorter than his attractive co-star.  Rasmussen is adequate in her role, which is admittedly less interesting than Debbouze’s, and sometimes it can feel like her looks and figure were the key elements in winning her the part.  That being said, her dominant and seductive character can certainly fill the screen when necessary.

Though the performances of the leads are important, I feel that the main character of the film for Besson is Paris itself.  He takes every opportunity to fill the screen with wonderful wide shots of the city, with plenty of sweeping overhead shots playing their part as well.  As one of the key themes of the film seems to be an appreciation of life, it is clear that the director feels that Paris is where this life is best appreciated, making sure to fit in the Eiffel Tower, Montmatre and the Seine as often as possible.  Filming in black and white only accentuates how open and bright he makes the city seem.  His direction is fast, the editing cleverly and stylishly connecting scenes together (Andre lifts his coffee to end one scene and immediately lowers another to start the next, for example).

Upon watching “Angel-A” you won’t feel as if your eyes have been opened to a new way of storytelling or even that a fresh story has been told to you.  The plot is very predictable, with some character elements (particularly for Angela) feeling like tacked-on plot drivers.  The light tone and fast pace do make up for this somewhat and the climax is moving enough.  The core strength of the movie is the energetic performance by Debbouze, who brings a lot of sympathy, as well as humour, to his lead role.  Rasmussen is competent and sexy and sometimes manages to deliver with real heart.  Besson’s romance, though, is clearly with Paris itself, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful portrayal of Europe’s most romantic city.