Vagrant Journalism

Published pieces from the past, the present and of the potential future.

6 November 2008: Under the Guise of a Conforming Visual Aesthetic Exists a Deconstructing of the Cinéma du Look Model

Posted by Christina on March 23, 2009

xp obligations ANGEL-AThis is the midterm paper written for FMS101C on behalf of my beloved French films, New Wave and especially Cinema du Look.

Under the Guise of a Conforming Visual Aesthetic Exists a Deconstructing of the Cinéma du Look Model

As Luc Besson constitutes one-third of the forefather triumvirate for cinéma du look, consumers of this film culture are indebted to him for propagating the cinema scene with all the elements heralded by cinéma du look constructs. Defined with detailed particularity in Sue Harris’s essay “The Cinéma du Look,” elements of this movement in French film are clearly defined in Besson’s Angel-A, especially with the visual aesthetic of the film and how it exemplifies a heightened ocular pleasure over anything else. However, there are moments in which the film delineates from the cinéma du look model by effectively bringing to light some film models that were initially dismissed with the post-1968 filmmakers. Defined in terms of Harris’s stated elements involving characterization, there lies a conflict between a mere visual representation and one of more psychological depth in terms of defining the main protagonists. Further it is in its return to the formal style of location shooting, which has largely been indebted to the French New Wave, that renders Besson’s Angel-A a someone deconstruction of cinéma du look. Interestingly, while the film seems to break away from a style first brought to life by this director, it simultaneously heralds the cinéma du look model, utilizing its modes of construct to create filmic eye candy.

What works particularly well in identifying Angel-A as forming to the cinéma du look model is a sense of choreography seen through the characters’ excessive gesturing and in the final scene where Angel-A fights to fly back to Heaven. It is in the comparative mode of gesturing which exists between André and Angel-A which further characterizes them on screen as dichotomous. André uses the whole of his body to portray a particular language that renders his entire body a form of gesturing. It is here where we see how he is fitful, spastic and fidgety while Angel-A glides her body’s movements, even in heated moments of angry argumentative expressiveness. Also later, when Angel-A and André fight in mid-air, it is the choreography of cuts and shots that renders this sequence similar to Soviet montage. The play of cuts to heighten the anticipation and anxiety of what’s to come is also heavily stylized and choreographed.

The crisp visuality of the film’s every frame relies heavily on “conventions drawn from advertising photography and television commercials” (Bordwell and Thompson, 621), particularly since Besson dealt with advertising before his move to cinema. However, apart from the cross-migration of Besson’s talents from one form to another, the solely stellar and picturesque quality of each frame as a formal element exists across the board for the cinéma du look model. Particularly with Angel-A, there exists a certain beauty to nearly every frame in an overindulgence of the visual senses. Not only does the beauty of the Danish supermodel turned actress, Rie Rasmussen as Angel-A add an unavoidably goddess-like characterization to the screen, but the shots deal heavily with showcasing the wondrous beauty of Parisian existence through architectural culture.

Many shots combine these two elements of beauty. There are reasons for having Angel-A, along with André, trudge endlessly across bridges onto their next mini-adventure or why they eat at fancy restaurants and march through decorative hallways. Besson is showcasing the internal and external qualities of the city of Paris moreover that anything else. The architecture of Paris is breathtaking and Besson has crafted a narrative that takes these characters through the streets of Paris in the day time and the nighttime. He showcases key architectural achievements in Parisian culture without being kitschy or even cliché about including any initial establishing shots of the Eiffel Tower or even the Arc de Triomphe. Particularly, this architectural beauty is showcased in the scene at the foot of Sacré Cœur where both André and Angel-A are eclipsed by the beauty of the structure behind them. The church is clearly a massive achievement of French architectural culture and Besson has taken great care in expertly procuring such a shot. As the entire film goes along with this model, it’s clear that, “the imaginative, often absurd stylization of an environment is intrinsic to the form [and] the result of a highly professional, highly skilled attention to the very smallest details of cinematic composition” (Harris, 228).

As a supermodel and actress, Rasmussen obtains Angel-A’s entire way of being and presents it for the exact purpose of a film based on the ideals surrounding cinéma du look. Angel-A is nearly 6-feet-tall, has eyes that sparkle even through the over-nicotinic and seemingly cocaine-riddled gaze and has legs for days. Her gait is always effortlessly perfect with a string of pearls poised delicately yet expertly on her neck and a black mini-dress sliding along all the right places of her body. Even in the initial sequence where André is being beaten down by gangsters who claim he owes them money, the background is beautiful albeit it’s actually being close to what looks like the sewage system in France. Nevertheless, beauty is also evident in that still shot of André as his voice over clues the audience in on his mini-biography. For that moment he is still, no body language to render the audience judgmental about his actions and no prior knowledge of his tendency to lie and swindle for the audience to not believe a word of what he’s saying. In a sense, André looks beautiful. His dark features are becoming, his button nose endearing and his coat is rather smart looking.

The presentation of these elements to the spectator by means of a high contrast lighting-enhancing the grays, identifying the blacks and brightening the whites-also creates an aesthetically pleasing visual to literally gawk at throughout the entirety of the film. There also exists a realization that the wielder of the apparatus obtaining the footage must be highly skilled in their trade. As evident with other cinéma du look projects, the directors have an intense technical mastery of capturing footage using in-camera and lighting tricks to enhance the visual. While the film is shot entirely in black and white and lacks color, which is a key ingredient in identifying a cinéma du look film, it is the play with the grays that adds its own mode of beauty to each frame. This combination of these visual aspects with formal styles utilized throughout the film is precisely the evidence of the post-1968 movement towards Harris’s “new New Wave” (219) where in the move through the 1980s, “the work of new filmmakers with a taste for extravagant spectacle progressively eclipsed the 1970s vogue for historico-politico-realist filmmaking” (Harris, 219).

Moreover, Angel-A’s character while, in itself, is a representation of cinéma du look, it is also a delineation from the formal constructs. Angel-A is elegant yet hard as nails, classy yet wholly uncouth. It is in this dual embodiment that not only serves the purpose of being a driving force for the narrative-she does say that she is a mirror reflection of André’s inner beauty-but allows for the existence of another formal element of cinéma du look. These films are meant to present dichotomies, either side of a spectrum, between their protagonists. While Angel-A seems to be on a more successful side of the spectrum with André on the low-life, downtrodden side, it is the fact that Angel-A is an actual embodiment of André’s soul that brings a third element to this supposedly exclusive two-headed direction. André’s down-trodden soul is repeated in Angel-A which adds an element of psychological depth that is not very common of cinéma du look films.

The film also departs from the popular constructs in terms of the characterization and development of its protagonists. Angel-A takes on the role of a very different example of cinéma du look mainly because of the emotional depths into which the characters journey in order to overcome obstacles that have hindered their very existence. Angel-A and André take part in a discourse as a way to sift through the problems and issues that are effectively internal and not superficial. It’s then evident that while cinéma du look deems their “characters stand in stark contrast to the intellectual formation…of post-1968 film protagonists” (223), both André and Angel-A depart from that model entirely.

Up until the point at which we enter André’s life in the film, he has been down on his luck in many ways. A key underlying issue and the very driving force of the film’s narrative is the fact that André has been incapable of rising above the muck of self-destruction. With this as the mode of pushing the narrative arch forward, André is in constant conversations of mental turmoil with Angel-A. The discussion of bettering souls is no doubt a deep delve into one’s psychological existence. In the film, André is eventually exasperated by Angel-A’s incessant probe of his internal being and cries, “Why do you intellectualize everything?” It is precisely the intellectualization of the very narrative’s driving force that renders Angel-A a separation from popular cinéma du look constructs.

This is true especially since the entire film starts out as a journey in the overall betterment of just one character and then evolves into a general commentary on the human condition and love. Angel-A is sent from heaven to ultimately help André with his self-loathing as a real embodiment of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. The emotional and psychological depths into which the film delves goes beyond the material quality of surface representation and focuses on a more internalized representation and self-identification. The culmination of all this happens closer to the end where André is at the brink of successful transformation. She pushes him into a bathroom and demands he look at himself into the mirror. He looks and when Angel-A asks him, “What do you see?” André responds that he sees, “a beautiful girl” which furthers the psychological depth because by now, the audience understands Angel-A to be the internalization of André. This moment is the absolute transformation of André as he is finally able to tearfully say he loves himself without the physical presence of Angel-A egging him on. Her encouragement occurs internally as he hears her voice when he starts to falter. Ultimately, he is successful and it is this psychologically heavy scene the entire film was leading up to.

While the film presents elements of cinéma du look with the boy-meets-girl romance or even the oppositional representation of humanity seen in Angel-A and André, it is the tweaking of these core elements that renders the film separate from a staunch cinéma du look model. While the characterization of André and Angel-A fall “into the category of young hedonistic misfits, at ease with a consumerist ethos and skilled in the generic mores of popular culture” (222), it is their psychological depth and takes them away from the cinéma du look construct. Also, while cinéma du look has been heralded to reject the New Wave practice of location shooting, the film is entirely consumed with Parisian locale. However, this delineation from the model is combined with its appreciation in creating visually gorgeous frames incorporating Paris. Moreover it is perhaps in how Besson is very particular about his talent and crew that he has effectively created a subgenre of cinéma du look within his self-prescribed microcosm of filmmaking and in turn, Angel-A stands as his unofficially declared manifesto of this new sub-genre of cinéma du look.

Works Cited

1.      Thompson, Kristen, and David Bordwell.  Film History: An Introduction, Second Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2003

2.      Harris, Sue. “The Cinéma du Look.” European Cinema. ed. Elizabeth Ezra. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 219-232.

3.      Angel-A. Dir. Luc Besson. Perf. Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen. Europa Corp., 2005

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