Dirty Like an Angel is a French policier centering on Georges, a jaded veteran detective played by Claude Brasseur, who holds the film together with authority. Catherine Breillat’s camera observes him as he makes his weary rounds of Paris, now hustling a free drink or a payoff from “the Arabs”, now from “the blacks”. It’s a routine and a grind. He has two good friends: a petty crook and snitch who’s fleeing from a contract on his life, and young handsome detective Didier (Nils Tavernier) who’s already cheating on his stunning bride Barbara (the single-named actress Lio). Georges’ brief affair with her forms the heart of the film.
Georges, a lonely bachelor, seems only to be interested in Didier’s women, from a mistress to the wife. There’s a scene where he rides on the back of Didier’s motorcycle, holding on to him until he relinquishes his place to the wife. It’s obviously possible to read a suppressed subtext into Georges’ behavior and into his affectionate regard for his counterpart or double, the crook/snitch who winds up shot through the anus.
In keeping with Breillat’s other films about sexual relationships, the bedroom scenes have a (non-explicit) directness that observes how people’s behavior change during and after sex. In the director’s bonus interview, she says that this young woman is the origin of the type of coldly sexual explorer she later featured in Romance, and she also states that all her films end in “shame and pleasure”. This is a reference to the fact that Barbara, like a high percentage of French film heroines, likes to get slapped; transparent yet enigmatic, she smiles in amusement at the film’s final turn of events and Georges’ hypocritical judgments against her.
As a policier, the film is a smooth, absorbing genre piece that covers standard ground. As a film in the French tradition of talky bedroom relations from Godard through today, it’s well done. As a film exemplifying Breillat’s themes, it’s one of her most accessible because she places it within a traditional “entertainment” context and because of the strength of her leads.