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Angel (Un Ange) Koen Mortier

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Angel (Un Ange) | 2018 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

Angel (Un Ange) | 2018 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

Wheels of Desire: Mortier Breaks Silence with Funereal Portrait of Dead Celebrity

Angel (Un Ange) Koen MortierIt was a major punchline in Mike Nichols’ version of The Birdcage (1996) wherein a famed Republican senator (white, natch) dies off-screen in the arms of a black, underage prostitute. The prurient humor is underscored by the racial, economic, and political ramifications of such an illicit fraternization, here re-designed in all its sobering, formal probability in Angel, the third film from Belgian director Koen Mortier. A dramatized re-telling of the last days of famed Belgian cyclist Frank Vandenbroucke, Mortier revels in the troubled Tour de France alum’s final hours, where he overdosed in a prostitute’s apartment in Senegal. It’s been eight years since Mortier’s sophomore film 22nd of May, which focused on multiple narratives of victims who died in a deadly mall bombing, and while his latest effort shares similar retrospective intentions, it’s more tonally aligned with his 2007 break-out, Ex-Drummer.

Right as a steroid scandal threatens his career, renowned cyclist Thierry (Vincent Rottiers) finds himself adrift on a vacation in Dakar with his brother Serge (Paul Bartel). The brothers run into Fae (Fatou N’Diaye) and a co-worker at The African Queen, a local bar where white tourists usually go to meet local sex workers. While Thierry eschews casual sex, he finds himself drawn to Fae, and the two immediately embark on a romantically charged escapade, both desperate to escape the significant demons haunting them.

Although Mortier’s title doesn’t immediately conjure much by way of dramatic innovation, considering a slew of previous auteurs have used the moniker, from Neil Jordan (1984) to Francois Ozon (2007) and even this year’s El Angel from Argentina’s Luis Ortega, it reconfigures the demeaned status of its central character Fae, whose perspective guides the narrative—rather than victim, she’s the savior figure. Reluctant to define herself as a sex worker and triggered by the derogatory term ‘whore,’ which seems to be the popular denomination designated for members of her profession, Fae desires to rise above such baseness, fancifully considering herself to be a gazelle. But it’s exactly this fanciful escapism which allows her parallelism with Thierry, a lost soul as equally keen to retreat from reality as his professional career crumbles around him.

If Mortier’s screenplay, adapted from Dimitri Verhulst’s novel (author of The Misfortunates, adapted in 2009 by Felix van Groeningen) sometimes oscillates between vague approximations of the romantic interlude shared by Fae and Thierry (“I can only sleep with someone when I’m in love,” he explains to his brother only a beat or two before their fated meeting) which arguably downplays the desperation of both characters, Angel has other considerable strengths. The script takes great pains to juxtapose both narrative strands prior to their union by showing them as they engage in similar banal activities. The edge goes to Fae, attempting to forge her own path amongst a group of fellow sex workers already bitter and cynical. “Do you realize we fuck guys older than we’ll ever be?” is a reverberating note we’re left to ponder.

French actor Vincent Rottiers, who provided memorable supporting turns in high profile items like Nocturama (2016) and Dheepan (2015), is an agonized whirlwind of anxiety and impending failure, in a tailspin of anguish enabled by his brother, played by Paul Bartel (not the Eating Raoul cult writer-director). Fatou N’Diaye, known for her work in the Canadian film industry, particularly 2006’s A Sunday in Kigali, is a believable salve as a beautiful hooker with a heart of gold (and a need for rescuing).

DP Nicolas Karakatsanis, the favored cinematographer of Michael R. Roskam (having lensed Bullhead, The Drop, and Racer and the Jailbird) reflects a Senegal as purple and bruised as its emotionally battered star-crossed lovers. But it may be a score supplied by Soulsavers, the electronica and alternative rock remix duo, which really supplies Angel with its most potent elements. Notes of discord and doom screech across the soundtrack as Fae and Thierry embark on their night of revelry, a foreboding symphony delivering us into its inevitable tragedy and the numbing aftershocks for the woman left behind in the scandalous wake of his death.

Reviewed on September 10th at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival – Contemporary World Cinema Programme. 105 Mins.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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