Two people are paid for their services to others: Thierry (Vincent Rottiers), a Belgian pro cyclist who once had a shot at immortality, and Fae (Fatou N’Diaye), the Senegalese sex worker he abandons his training to spend a night with. Thierry’s overbearing self-loathing, grown from his reliance on the press cycle rather than his bicycle to make money as he’s caught in a drug-and-doping scandal, is only matched by Fae’s stiff-spined dignity. She’s not ashamed of her lot, but she’s certainly not satisfied with it. In Angel, these burnout and heart-of-gold stereotypes share a passionate, hallucinatory evening that only gets better the further it gets from the rote realities of writer/director Koen Mortier’s narrative.
Thierry’s tourism and Fae’s daily routine are crosscut reflections, two sides of the same transaction that slowly becomes something more—as hard to believe as that may be. Rottiers’ high-strung colonizer confidence, shoulders thrust back as he and his brother saunter through the world looking for the next fix of whatever will help their self-esteem, contrasts with N’Diaye’s quiet self-assuredness. Thierry navigates the world with a vacationer’s entitlement while Fae simply runs through a routine, her voiceover made superfluous by the almost bored way N’Diaye ambles through the streets, halls and showers. This embodies the film’s ongoing conflict between capable visual storytelling and a faltering confidence that consistently undercuts it with an overwritten script. That the pair will eventually collide is obvious, and the increasing frequency of dreamstates that punctuate their connection is as obvious as Thierry’s substance problem.
But how these druggy, depressive imaginings influence our feelings throughout their dinner-and-dancing night on the town helps Angel stand out from the dregs of star-crossed lovers with cinematically sad lives. When Thierry professes his love for Fae, seemingly so moved by her beauty to propose to her and promise her a faraway fantasy life back in Belgium, Fae plays along. It’s more than a little hard to buy, especially considering how ferrety the short cyclist is compared to his paramour’s nearly bioluminescent beauty. You even start to think maybe they’re the imaginings of a doped-up mind—until you come to terms with the fact that every repetitive “it was all a dream” sequence contains a self-inflicted violent end to Thierry’s violent delights. Unfortunately, even Fae’s fits of imagination still center on this suicidal sad sack. Then you move on from shaking your head at the writing, which Mortier based on Dimitri Verhulst’s novel Monologue of Someone Who Got Used to Talking to Herself, and start wondering if the characters themselves are simply caught up in how cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis is shooting the night.
Karakatsanis, who’s recently brought an erratic energy to a pair of Craig Gillespie films (I, Tonya and Cruella), heightens the commonplace and raises the exceptions to ecstasy. Neon is everywhere, skin has a heightened glow—even a bad burger and a cheap margarita look inviting. Yet, it’s how Mortier uses Karakatsanis’ abilities that allow Angel to nearly pull off its most derivative ideas. Long, desperately shaky handheld tracking shots traverse its rattled characters’ ventures from light to dark, and between heavily hued states of mind. Watching them move through life from behind, we see their next steps as they do—the destinations becoming as inevitable as a swirling sequence coming back around to show the same event from a different perspective. The camerawork and color (especially in the costumes and lighting of N’Diaye) are Angel’s most delectable offerings. Its sumptuous filming of N’Diaye makes it hard to look away even when your eyes are rolling at the overwrought emotional swings and inelegantly divulged backstory. A pair of extended dialogue-free sequences, where mouths move silently as we’re left to intuit the meaning, are ironically the film’s strongest moments; Angel excels at constructing feelings rather than thoughts.
Often, that can be enough. The simple, dangerous passion the pair share is hard to buy intellectually, but staged as it is, you can still feel the electricity. If Angel had faith in us like it does in its stars, we’d be left to simmer in their escapist affair. But it’s all talked to death, leaving us—like so many magical late nights have before—with scattered images that will linger and grow fonder in our minds as their erratic and imperfect instigations fade from memory.
Director: Koen Mortier
Writers: Koen Mortier, Dimitri Verhulst (novel)
Stars: Vincent Rottiers, Fatou N’Diaye, Paul Bartel, Aïcha Cissé, Luc Assez
Release Date: June 25, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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