A two-hander in exquisite black-and-white, pic is a fable about self-acceptance set in a ravishingly lensed, hauntingly vacant Paris. Luc Besson's 10th directorial outing is good news for his detractors, since he has said he'll helm no more than 10. Offshore sales will hinge on local appetites for how Paris' beauty is captured.

A two-hander in exquisite black-and-white, “Angel-A” is a fable about self-acceptance set in a ravishingly lensed, hauntingly vacant Paris. Luc Besson’s first pic since 1999’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” is his 10th directorial outing. This is good news for his detractors, since he has said he’ll helm no more than 10. For his fans, “Angel-A” is an achingly sincere but protracted effort to trade mostly action for mostly dialogue. Beloved entertainer Jamel Debbouze in a bittersweet role will entice curious auds for modest but respectable B.O. Offshore sales likely will hinge more on local appetites for how Paris’ beauty is captured than on the story.

A sort of “It’s an Adequate Life” with token bad guys, pic’s tone is a bit as if the color-coded gangsters in “Reservoir Dogs” decided to get together and form a rainbow.

Debbouze (“Amelie”) plays Andre, a 28-year-old downtrodden pipsqueak who owes tens of thousands of dollars to cruel creditors all over town. At pic’s outset, three thugs give Andre until midnight to pay his E40,000 ($48,000) debt to their boss. Soon after, the sinister Franck (Gilbert Melki) has his men dangle Andre off the Eiffel Tower.

Andre, who considers himself to be an American on a technicality, finds no help at the U.S. Embassy. He then fails to convince the police to lock him up for his own protection.

Poised on one of the city’s most photogenic bridges determined to end it all, Andre notices another would-be suicide: an impossibly statuesque blonde in a little — really little — black dress. She leaps into the Seine and Andre instinctively jumps in to rescue her. Cynics might say it’s unlikely that a one-armed man in a wool overcoat (Debbouze lost the use of one arm in a youthful accident) could rescue anybody, but Andre drags himself and the woman to safety.

The leggy looker, Angela (Rie Rasmussen), is two heads taller than Andre. When he berates her for trying to deprive the world of so much youth and beauty, she assures him she’s rotten and ugly inside– and that’s what counts. That kernel of wisdom sums up pic’s worthy — if repetitive — thesis.

Reassured by Andre, Angela pledges to stay by his side. With her aggressive lead, they tackle his problems.

There’s a twist at the 45-minute mark that Besson — attending the nation’s first public showing at 9 a.m. Dec. 21 — asked a packed house not to reveal. It’s not that much of a twist, but his wishes will be respected here.

Rasmussen, a striking Dane whose fetching accent puts her in the Gallic tradition of foreign leading ladies such as Jean Seberg and Anna Karina, is being described as “unknown.” But it’s hard to believe anyone who saw Brian De Palma’s “Femme Fatale” has forgotten the sight of her clad in little but $10 million worth of diamonds.

Rasmussen and Debbouze are perfectly cast, but their characters just aren’t all that interesting. They talk a lot, with Angela always voicing her eagerness to get to whatever’s next on the agenda. Still, compared with most of the films Besson has written, directed or produced, pace is positively Zen-like, with calm cutting to match.

Pic’s finale ties everything together with some nifty special effects. Thesps rehearsed for six weeks in order to make the most of location work.

Shooting in chronological order in July and August — mostly at the crack of dawn — Besson and ace d.p. Thierry Arbogast (in their fifth collaboration) manage to make Paris look completely depopulated. Shimmering in the early morning light, it’s a city whose streets and bridges exist only for Andre and Angela — and for our aesthetic pleasure.

Selective use of violence in the service of a higher cause, which is part and parcel of Besson’s universe, is made unabashedly tender here.Score by Anja Gabarek is a plus.

With animation on his mega-budgeted “Arthur” (aka “Arthur et les Minimoys”) still under way for a December 2006 release, Besson can always claim that is really his final helming effort, should “Angel-A” prove an insufficiently satisfying grace note.

Angel-A

France

Production

A EuropaCorp Distribution release of a EuropaCorp, TF1 Films, Apipoulai production with participation of Canal Plus in association with Sofica EuropaCorp. (International sales: EuropaCorp, Paris.) Produced, directed, written by Luc Besson.

Crew

Camera (B&W, widescreen), Thierry Arbogast; editor, Frederic Thoraval; music, Anja Garbarek; production designer, Jacques Bufnoir; costume designer, Martine Rapin; sound (Dolby), Didier Lozahic, Jean Minondo; special f/x, Pierre Buffin; assistant director, James Canal; casting, Swan Pham. Reviewed at UGC Les Halles, Paris, Dec. 21, 2005. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Andre - Jamel Debbouze Angela - Rie Rasmussen Franck - Gilbert Melki Pedro - Serge Riaboukine
With: Akim Chir, Olivier Claverie, Solange Milhaud, Franck Olivier Bonnet, Michel Chesneau.

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