Thesp Vincent Perez makes an interesting behind-the-camera debut with “Once Upon an Angel,” a smartly put together, well-cast romantic drama that just needed a little more work on the script. Tale of a simple farm girl who loses her virginity to — but not her love for — a more emotionally complex, ambitious young man doesn’t add up to a great deal, but features good perfs by leads Morgane More and Guillaume Depardieu, plus a tight construction that doesn’t tarry. Theatrical business beyond Francophone markets will be limited, but Perez at least shows he has another string to his bow beyond acting.
Sent out to work by her indebted farming parents, Angele Dubois (More), an ingenuous, slightly clumsy 18-year-old, is employed by a local doctor and his wife (Stephane Boucher, Helene de Saint Pere) as a maid. Rooming with the more extroverted Josiane (Magalie Woch), who encourages her to pursue a singing career with her fine natural voice, Angele meets Gregoire Berthelot (Depardieu), who’s passing through town for the funeral of his mom, and claims he’s in the music biz.
Due to a mix-up over the time of Gregoire’s train back to Angers, the two end up first in a restaurant and later in bed together, where Angele surrenders to the moody young man’s mix of aggression and vulnerability, even when he confesses he’s not a music manager. Next morning, he leaves.
Opening half-hour sets up the pic’s narrative style, introducing a large cast of succinctly etched characters in a fluid style. Natural widescreen lensing by Philippe Pavans de Ceccatty (who’s done some sterling work for Claude Lelouch) and snippets of a warm, well-positioned score both help to engage interest.
In Angers, Gregoire talks his way into a job at Grenier Laboratories, a large pharmaceuticals and cosmetics company, claiming he has an acute sense of smell. With his combination of charm and chutzpah, he’s soon attracted the attention — separately — of both the firm’s boss (Laurent Terzieff) and his beautiful, intelligent daughter, Laure (co-scripter Karine Silla, real-life wife of Perez).
After Angele quits her job at the Artauds, and later hears where Gregoire is now working, she sets off for Angers to stay at the home of one of Grenier’s salesmen, Faivre (Cannes laureate Olivier Gourmet, from “The Son”), who has personal problems of his own. In a complex interweaving of destinies, Angele, who’s now discovered she’s pregnant by Gregoire, ends up suffering for her innocence.
Screenplay packs an enormous amount of plot into the brief 83 minutes running time, but without any sense of haste. (For example, Gregoire’s affair with, and then marriage to, Laure is done with great economy, and the passage of time during the movie is invisible.) Chief failure of the film, and the reason why it leaves merely a pleasant impression after the lights go up, is that the focus keeps shifting away from Angele for large chunks.
Main theme seems to be that a pure love can transcend both the vicissitudes of daily life and the selfishness of individuals. But despite Perez’s obvious gift for keeping a large number of characters in the air at the same time, the movie never goes much beyond the surface of any of them, let alone get a hold of its central theme. For starters, Gregoire’s emotional problems with his family, mentioned early on, are essentially left on the sidelines.
Helmer is helped by a topnotch cast, with Terzieff and de Saint Pere standouts among the older characters, and Silla sharp as the smart Laure. Newcomer More (from “Saint-Cyr”) is just right as the selfless Angele, and Depardieu ditto as the tightly wound Gregoire, who finds all his defenses crumble when in her presence. Gourmet’s depressed employee is the one character who doesn’t ring true, but Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is memorable in a cameo as an edgy prison officer.