Secrets Revealed

Fri, Feb 20, 2009

angel, winter 09 secret cinema

The adventurous moviegoers who took a leap into the dark for last night's Secret Cinema screening were treated to Angel, a new English-language melodrama by the protean French director François Ozon.

While Ozon has made plenty of films with interesting male leads, Angel, like his previous films Under the Sand, 8 Women, and Swimming Pool, shows that Ozon is one of the great “woman's directors” working today (reclaiming that term which always had a patina of pejorative and making it a point of pride). Angel is a star-making vehicle for Romola Garai, an actress who has had made strong impressions in several supporting roles in recent years: as the scene-stealing roommate of Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen's Scoop and as the middle Briony in Atonement. (How quickly she forged an impressive career out of the most dubious of starts; her first big role was as the lead in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Although, in retrospect, any movie starring Romola Garai and Diego Luna is likely to be watchable at worst.)

In Angel, Garai plays a British romance novelist blessed with bad taste and purple prose that aligns perfectly with what the public of her time wants. She's also a self-mythologizing egoist and the most monstrously unsympathetic character to appear on screen in many a moon. Imagine Danielle Steel or Barbara Cartland mixed with Joan Crawford at the height of her diva powers. And Ozon wrote and directed the film like it's one of Angel's fables – completely straight-faced and more than a little ridiculous at the same time.

Ozon's films have always alternated between deadly serious (Under the Sand, 5x2) and over-the-top camp (8 Women and Criminal Lovers). Angel seems to bewilder a lot of viewers because it exists in some uncategorizable area somewhere between those two poles. Angel may be an entirely unlikeable figure, but Ozon loves her. The movie often plays like camp, but it's not of the ironic variety. Instead it's camp that Ozon truly believes in.

When I first saw the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival, I saw it at a public screening where the film played like an out-and-out comedy. And I came away thinking that it's an enjoyable lark with a great central performance. But after a second viewing last night, it's actually a more interesting film than I gave it credit for. Although it's far from perfect, it has been thoroughly enjoyable to puzzle through the film's ideas about art and life. For instance, is the fact that Angel's miserablist husband's dreary “smudge” paintings become acclaimed for their “limited color palate” after his death one of the film's unstated jokes?

In any event, it was great to see the pageantry of Romola Garai's increasingly outrageous outfits (one of her final ensembles looks like a cross between a goth Janis Joplin and Miss Haversham) on the big screen. The Secret Cinema attendees last night are one of the few American audiences to have that opportunity. Instead of giving the film a theatrical release, IFC Films is distributing the film through their video-on-demand “Festival Direct” pay-per-view channel from March 18 through June 18.

We try to offer a diverse range of films through the Secret Cinema screenings so that audiences never know what to expect… so take a chance on the next one for something totally different.

-Chris Stults, Film/Video Assistant Curator