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Angel
cast: Romola Garaï, Sam Neill, Charlotte Rampling, Lucy Russell, and Michael Fassbender

director: François Ozon

116 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Lions Gate DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Ian Sales
Some jokes can be told with a straight face. Others require a sly wink, because there's always a danger no one will realise it's not serious. François Ozon's Angel falls into the latter category.

It is the early years of the 20th century. Angel Deverell (Romola Garaï) is a schoolgirl, and her mother runs a small grocery shop. Angel is also convinced she will be become a world-famous writer. She sends off her novel to various publishers. One decides to take a chance on it, even though it is quite clearly rubbish. Theo (Sam Neill) thinks the public might like Angel's novel - despite his first meeting with her going badly. When he suggests a few changes: "I think you'll find you don't need a corkscrew to open a bottle of champagne," she replies, "I think you'll find you do," and then refuses to alter one single word of her novel... Still, he chooses to publish her. And she is a success. Angel is an Edwardian Jackie Collins, churning out reams of implausible romantic tosh, and becoming very rich on the proceeds.

She buys the house she dreamt as a child of living in, and fills it with hideous bric à brac and objets d'art. At a party to launch one of her books, she is introduced to Nora Howe-Nevinson (Lucy Russell), one of her biggest fans. Nora's brother, Esmé (Michael Fassbender), a painter, is also present. Angel immediately falls in love with him, and sets about capturing his art. Esmé is not considered a good painter, so Angel tries to boost his reputation. She fails but she does persuade him to marry her (he's after her money, of course). Later he has affairs, and loses a leg in the Great War. Both Esmé and Angel die while still relatively young. After Esmé's death, his art is re-evaluated and elevated to greatness. After Angel dies, her books are forgotten.

I suspect Ozon's jest is more likely to fall flat than win fans. Some of the comments on imdb.com already suggest that many viewers missed the joke. This may be because there's no punch-line. While watching the film, there's a constant expectation that a shoe is waiting somewhere to be dropped. But it never is. The entire story is played straight - or rather, played like one of Angel's novels. The string-heavy soundtrack is so syrupy; you can feel cavities developing in your teeth. Angel's appalling taste in clothes and d�cor bludgeons your eyes. Outside scenes clearly - and ironically - use photographic backdrops. When Angel and love-interest Esmé kiss in the rain, a rainbow forms above their heads. There are lines such as "When you storm out, make sure the door doesn't hit you in the face!" Angel enters her book launch party to the accompaniment of an instrumental 'God Save The Queen'...

By all accounts, Elizabeth Taylor's novel is ironic and possessed of a gentle English humour. Ozon is a Frenchman. Around ten minutes into Angel, I realised I was watching Gigi without the songs. Ozon has turn the kitsch up to 11, which has had the peculiar side-effect of making the telling of the tale more ridiculous, rather than pointing up the ridiculousness of the story itself. There is humour in Angel, but it is comedy of the absurd. The viewer is invited to laugh at Angel's rampaging egocentrism, yet Ozon manages to make her a mostly sympathetic character (however, some roles, it is tempting to suggest, should remain unrealised 'challenges'). It is only at the end of the film that any irony is in evidence, and if Ozon intended that to be the punch-line then it makes Angel a shaggy-dog story.

Angel is an entertaining film, but it's not an entirely successful one. Tempting as it is to treat Angel's life as though it were one of Angel's novels; it's too obvious a strategy, and too easy to misread as simply a bad treatment of a book. In the making of featurette on this disc, Ozon declares he wanted to pay homage to the melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s. But the story doesn't actually fit such a treatment. It isn't My Fair Lady without the songs, although it is a rags-to-riches tale. It's a monument to the towering egomania of an Edwardian romantic novelist - no, not a monument, a folly.
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