Dir/scr: Luc Besson. Fr. 2005. 90mins.

Absent from behind the camera since his 1999 medievalepic, The Messenger: The Story of Joan ofArc, Luc Besson makes a modest directorialcomeback with Angel-A.

The French film industry'sbest-kept secret of 2005, the offbeat romance was shot on the sly in Paris last summer(while media attention was diverted by the filming of The Da Vinci Code) from a script that Besson wrote a decade ago, then put aside.

Taking the familiar boy-meets-girl(in Paris) plot, Besson overlays it with asupernatural premise: that the girl is a female angel sent down to Earth to helpa sympathetic sleazebag find his self-respect.

Released in France on Dec 21without press or preview screenings - although with a good deal of last minutemedia promos - it remains to be seen how Besson'score youth audience will take to the film. After all, they are more used to hissuccessful straight-action franchises such as the Taxi and The Transporter action series (which he scripts andproduces), as well as earlier fare like TheFifth Element (1997) and Leon(1994).

Beyond Francophoneterritories Angel-A uneasily straddles the arthouse andmore mainstream markets and may have to rely on its enticing look for business.

Andre (Debbouze)a ne'er-do-well entrepreneur of sorts, introduceshimself as a successful American businessman, although he is an Algerianlowlife with a criminal record who once won a Green Card in the US lottery.

The audience first meet himas he is being roughed up by three toughs demanding that he pay his debts tohis underworld creditors, notably the elegantly sinister Mr Franck (Melki).

Andre and Angela (Rassmussen) eventually meet in a downbeat sort of way,vying for suicide space on a city bridge. When he saves her from drowning, she in turn offers whatever services he may request.

As they flee across thecity, Angela helps him pick up cash in strange ways (like getting all the malesin a disco to fork out for her charms without really delivering) and startsindoctrinating him into a personalised self-help and self-love programme. Andrein turn gradually earns his self-respect - but almost loses Angela in thesurreal climax.

Angel-A is a moralising talethat wears its heart on its sleeve, even if Besson isstill a director more at home with action than with words, and the at-timesexcessive reliance on homiletic talk quickly grates.

But Besson'scommercial trump card is his male star: Jamel Debbouze, the diminutive 30-year old Moroccan-born stageand TV funnyman who is one of France's most popular(and best-paid) entertainers. Last seen internationally in a small role inSpike Lee's She Hate Me (2004), heremains a firmly local phenomenon who can raise a storm of hilarity with astreet-smart staccato repartee that only French-speakers can appreciate.

Though he enjoyed a personaltriumph in Asterix & Obelix:Mission Cleopâtre in 2002 (in which he upstaged thefilm's titular stars), he has kept his film essays limited. Angel-A might change his agenda,especially as it proves he can handle intense dramatic scenes.

Jamel is strikingly set off by his blonde statuesqueco-star (a full head taller than him), the Danish supermodel and Gucci girl Rie Rassmussen (who appeared in BrianDe Palma's French-produced thriller Femme Fatale and has herself made a shortproduced by Besson's EuropaCorp).She delivers a breezy, winning performance as the mysterious Angela that neatlyserves Jamel's more tormented anti-hero.

Returning to the black andwhite of his 1983 debut The Last Combat,Besson turns mid-summer Paris into the film's thirdmain character, as Thierry Arbogast's lushphotography gives the script a timeless, fable-like quality.

The recurring leitmotif ofParis bridges also recalls an earlier and more insanely ambitious Paris-setboy-meets-girl tale, Leos Carax's Les Amants Du Pont Neuf.

Norwegian composer Anja Garbarek contributes anattractive score.

Production companies
TF1 Films

French distribution
EuropaCorp Distribution

International sales

Luc Besson

Thierry Arbogast

Production design
Jacques Bufnoir

Frederic Thoraval

Anja Garbarek

Main cast
Jamel Debbouze
Rie Rasmussen
Gilbert Melki
Serge Riaboukine