Appearing in a meaningful freeze-frame, Andre (Jamel Debbouze) tells you a little something about himself. He’s got American citizenship and fine apartment in New York. He’s a “cute, fun-loving type of guy” and “hot in bed.” And oh yes, he adds, “I lie to myself and the whole world all day long.” And with that, the action commences, as a three-thug combo proceeds to beat Andre down.
Rendered in poetic black-and-white, Andre’s travails are nonetheless importunate. He’s a hustler, it turns out, and owes money to any number of hoodlums and gangsters, none inclined to grant him even 10 more seconds — as he asks this particular crew of thick-necked meanies — to “explain.” At last they break off the assault to give him until midnight, at which point they promise to come back and kill him. “You’re in over your head,” scoffs the chattiest ruffian. And indeed, it looks like Andre is exactly that. After he’s threatened by another gangster, Franck (Gilbert Melki) — who lectures him while his goon hangs him over the edge of the Eiffel Tower — Andre has no hope to pull together the 40,000+ euros he owes. So, following a couple of half-hearted pursuits of official mercy, at the U.S. Embassy (where he’s turned away for being such a derelict), then at a Parisian police station (where he’s tossed out for being so annoying), Andre sees only one option.
Standing on a bridge over the Seine, Andre almost leaps, then spots his version of Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, only here, filtered through the repetitive imagination of Luc Besson, the angel is a stunner. Named Angela and over six feet tall in her heels, white-blond hair, and black minidress, she’s played by Danish supermodel Rie Rasmussen, which mainly means she appears to be as unlike the short, rumpled Andre. And yet, when she jumps into the river and he saves her, she not only offers herself up as grateful tagalong, but also as his inspiration and mirror. She claims to be him, or at least, as he might be inside another, frankly extraordinary body. “I’m all yours,” she says, towering over him. “You’re a good cause.”
Andre doesn’t take much of this seriously, except that even having her next to him earns him points with the cretins he runs with, and that she finds ways — off-screen — to pay off or talk down his usurers. During a session with Franck that is going especially badly, she takes Andre aside and schools him (“You negotiate like an amateur,” she smirks), then cuts a deal that Franck apparently can’t turn down. By the time she appears to be turning non-stop tricks in a nightclub bathroom in order to deliver wads of cash to Andre, who waits at the bar, drowning his unspoken upset in drink after drink.
True to the Bessonian formula, Andre is falling in love with Angela. How could he not? She’s as brilliant and selfless, vulnerable and exciting as any of the perfect girls in The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, and The Professional. That Angela is a literal angel only takes Besson’s usual set-up to a next logical step: like Milla Jovovich, Anne Parillaud, or 12-year-old Natalie Portman, she’s leggy and thin, at once pure, childish, and seductive. Angela is caught between wisdom and naivete, and perhaps ironically, burdened by the physicality of her heavenly origins — she has great, loud-flapping wings that carry her long lanky frame into the sky as if against her will.
This question of will comes up frequently in Angel-A. While Angela insists that Andre is her assignment (and that she has no choice in such matters), she’s as visibly drawn to him as he is to her. As they sit across from one another in a café, she insists, “I am you.” Andre’s laughter (“I’m a six foot sexy bitch”) doesn’t exactly undermine the point, which is that he will eventually recognize himself in her, and that her service as muse is only the most mundane aspect of their relationship: like Clarence, she’s supposed to save her charge by convincing him of his worth: one oddly long and discomforting scene has her telling Andre, “I look at your body battered by lack of love and trust,” as Andre faces a bathroom mirror. He cringes and worries, unable to do her bidding. At long last, tears in his eyes, he tells himself, “Je t’aime.”
Such solicitation of self-love isn’t Angela’s only trick. Because she’s the ideal sexual object, she offers another, very familiar sort of ego boost for self-doubting Andre. For all his swaggering, he needs to find himself in her. Angela observes that Andre’s efforts to perform a conventional masculinity only get him into trouble (and certainly, all his lying and posturing look more silly than imposing). But the fact that she can play all gendered and essentially all sexed roles to the hilt doesn’t exactly leave him room to fashion an alternative.
Angela’s dominance, however, is deceptive. She’s in place to serve her man, to fall for him in spite of all her many other options (she’s been an angel for hundreds of years, apparently, but this is the moment when she feels torn), to commit herself to his story. As Andre asserts, “I can see it all, thanks to her.” It is, in the end, about what he sees and comes to know. He may still be lying all day long. Or he may believe what he says. Either way, she’s the occasion for his revelation.