They don't make 'em like this any more - but just try telling that to François Ozon, whose Angel is a determinedly old-fashioned English costume melodrama of the sort that once would have been a cast-iron vehicle for the likes of Bette Davis. Based on Elizabeth Taylor's 1957 novel, Angel is a rags-to-riches-to-sorrows story of a spirited young girl who strikes it lucky as a romantic author, but who finds money and glory can't buy happiness.
Ozon has shown a flair for ironic retro pastiche before now, notably in his musical 8 Women, but admirers will be surprised to see him here piling on the flounces with entirely unmocking intent. Neither the film nor impressive lead Romola Garai can quite sustain the tone over an overstretched running time, but both she and Ozon deserve full marks for chutzpah.
The film will be a hard sell, especially in view of its bitter outcome, but smart marketing could make it an international hit with the Jane Austen crowd and older audiences; Ozon fans and festival programmers, though, might scratch their heads over how to place it.
Set in early 20th-century England, the story follows the fortunes of Angel Deverell (Garai), a grocer's daughter with dreams of literary glory. To everyone's surprise but hers, success comes easily, when a London publisher (Neill) takes on her first novel, a naive hothouse confection.
Angel's hackneyed tales of swooning romance - based on a fertile imagination and precisely no knowledge of real life - make her fortune, but as she buys the mansion of her dreams, Paradise House, she proves fatally short on humility, self-awareness, good taste or talent. Love comes in the shape of dashing, darkly modernist painter Esme Howe-Nevinson (Fassbender), brother of Angel's adoring secretary Nora (Russell). But World War One is on the horizon, and Angel's days in the sun are numbered.
The prolific, versatile Ozon has invoked Sirk and Minnelli as his models here - add Cukor and Lean to the list. Ozon plays it so close to the 1940s romantic-weepy template that fans might have expected something of the same critical distance that Todd Haynes brought to his Sirk homage Far From Heaven.
In fact, Ozon revives his chosen genre with earnest heart and soul, and his admirers, and the art-house crowd in general, are likely to balk at the lavish mise en scene, flamboyant acting styles, and especially the unalloyed kitsch of Philippe Rombi's score.
But the film has a darker heart than you might suspect from its first hour, which establishes Angel as a flibbertigibbet riding for a fall. It's asking a lot of an audience to go along with a heroine who is hollow, conceited and a lousy artist to boot - but when the nastier aspects of Angel's deluded narcissism make her more grotesque than tragic in the final act, audiences may give up on her.
Romola Garai gives a sparky, witty performance for most of the film: it's only in the final third that she can't quite muster the grimmer emotional heft that's called for.
Angel could easily be dismissed as a folly, or a mere stylistic exercise, but it has an undertow of considerable contemporary relevance in its commentary on fame and the phenomenon of self-invention. The English period tone comes across pretty flawlessly in the dialogue, thanks to the contribution of playwright Martin Crimp.
Supporting cast is strong, especially Lucy Russell as Angel's devoted assistant; Fassbender glowers more than adequately, and Ozon regular Charlotte Rampling has a telling cameo as the publisher's brittle but ultimately sympathetic wife.
Production values and photography are never less than eye-catching, especially catching the tone of Angel's increasingly ill-judged nouveau riche pretensions.
Poisson Rouge Pictures
Based on the novel by Elizabeth Taylor