A father’s shockingly candid confession throws a 12-year-old kid’s emotional life out of whack in “Angel at Sea,” an impressive debut feature by Belgian helmer Frederic Dumont that asks more questions than it answers. Despite some heavy-handed symbolism and one obvious slip on the technical front, this gorgeously lensed and strongly acted tale of a Morocco-based, French-speaking family trying to deal with a severely depressed dad reps first-rate fest material. Pic bagged the top prize as well as actor kudos for Belgian vet Olivier Gourmet, who plays the father, at the recent Karlovy Vary fest.
Louis (Martin Nissen) and his slightly older brother, Quentin (Julien Frison), are the two carefree sons of an overworked and severely depressed Euro bureaucrat, Bruno (Gourmet). Together with the boys’ mother, Marie (Anne Consigny), they live in a comfortable house two steps from the beach and a lighthouse in southern Morocco, where Bruno is based.
Marie seems to be aware of her hubby’s condition, but scribe-helmer Dumont looks at Bruno almost exclusively from the perspective of the boys. It is never really clear what his work entails and there is no certain diagnosis of his mental state, just what the kids can see and understand with their limited knowledge.
The film’s pivotal moment occurs when Bruno cruelly confides in Louis that he wants to end his life that night, which leads to the little one obsessively watching over his dad (the threatened act does not happen). The exceptional perfs from both Gourmet and, especially, young Nissen, turn the quick emotional corrosion of what had been a healthy father-son relationship into riveting material. Louis practically grows up overnight as he deals with doubts, responsibilities and thoughts he had not known existed.
Though Dumont relies mainly on his thesps, his screenplay occasionally overdoes the symbolism, which pops up not only in several of the games the kids play but also in the Baudelaire poem that Louis is prepping for school and that gives the pic its title.
As “Angel” progresses toward a conclusion that never seems in doubt but is hard for the boys to fathom, it occasionally slides into impressionism, and the presence of Consigny makes the comparison to the at times fanciful “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” an obvious one. The presence of Super 8 material, shot by Marie, further adds to the evocative imagery.
Lensing by Virginie Saint Martin (“Gilles’ Wife”) is superb, with editor Glenn Berman nimbly alternating between the medium and closeup shots that lend the film its intimacy, while occasionally pulling back for views of the gorgeous Moroccan landscapes and the sea. Lighting is especially well designed, with the contrast of the bright sunlight outside and shadows indoors finding its nighttime equivalent in the bright flares from the lighthouse that occasionally pierce the dark of night.
Gregory Nowak’s production design is a mixed bag: The decades-old lemon tree in the courtyard that Louis uses to observe his father’s second-floor office for days on end is distractingly fake-looking, though locations are generally well-chosen. Score by Luc Sicard becomes more full-bodied as the film progresses, but generally relies on just a few instruments, much like the film itself.
A correction was made to this review on Aug. 4, 2009.