A film review of ANGEL & TONY / ANGÈLE ET TONY and interview with director Alix Delaporte
and lead actress Clotilde Hesme by Timothy E. RAW
Alix Delaporte's debut film marinates in perplexing contradictions. A docu-realistic fairytale, it's a romance with intimacy issues and two lovers who despite being exactly as they appear, are difficult to comprehend. The direction is circumspect and at times overly subtle, but what stays with you about this deceptively simple love story is its enigmatic telling. It's rare these days that a film resists the temptation to lead an audience by the nose, rarer still that such assured work is from the hand of a first-time filmmaker. Judging the film accordingly, it's a considerable success even though as a character study, it's scaled back and lacking in dramatic incident.
The setting is a blustery, weathered fishing village in Normandy, France, the frugal existence of its inhabitants apiece with the wandering Angèle (Clotilde Hesme), a woman in step with the current economic beat down, looking for low-level work that pays just enough to get by, wherever it is she happens to end up.
First seen having passionless sex with a stranger up against a wall and not living up to her name, Angèle trades a quick concrete bang for a knock-off action man doll, a present for estranged son Yohan, about to go into the permanent custody of her parents-in-law. As nonplussed about her body as she is the dead-end work that keeps her fed, it's easy to imagine Angèle might just as easily trade sex for money whenever the menial work doesn't come her way. Though director Delaporte assured me in our interview that this was not the case, the film's presiding temperament is elliptical and purposely lacking in any information on the character's past lives, seems wide open for such interpretation.
Newly released from prison and owning few possessions outside of her stolen bike and leather jacket (another defensive layer of an already hard exterior), Angèle rides into town in response to a newspaper ad placed by fisherman Tony (Grégory Gadebois) who has recently lost his father at sea.
Gutting fish for Tony and lodging with him in close quarters, their first scenes together are a series of tentative negotiations of physical space, each sizing the other up. Tony's awestruck approach is how one might warily draw near a rare exotic bird. There's a definite crack in his usually stonewalled expression, enough to let us know that he never expected to be interested in the person he hired, let alone attracted to her. An emotionally closed off loner who lives with his mother, he's not necessarily conscious of these feelings in the beginning, but Angèle picks up on them right away. Sensing she might not get the job, she asks Tony if he'd like to fuck. He never says as much, but unlike the men before him, Tony doesn't want a woman like Angèle walking into his life only to risk letting her slip through his fingers by sleeping with her. Where so many films improbably pair much less physically attractive men with desirable women, Tony's suspicious hesitance of her offer is an acknowledgement of the fact that attraction is never that easy.
Turned down, the question will be asked again and the word used often. Angèle's default setting, she'd rather screw than be screwed over. Thinking nothing of debasing herself in this way, Angèle is an animal running on instinct, though perhaps more feral cat than exotic bird.
Illiterate and angry, all the angst and emotion pent up from a life of past mistakes is expressed physically and when Angèle's not fucking the pain away, she's cycling: the harder she pedals, the more she hurts. Throughout, there are long-held close-ups of Angèle determinedly riding to no place in particular. As she tells me in our interview, Clotilde Hesme shot biking-riding scenes at the end of every day. If as she says, the process was more mechanical than psychological, then due credit must be given to editor Louise Decelle for assembling the pieces in such a way that they form an emblematic subtext.
Riding with a punctured tire, Angèle has already suffered her fair share of bumps along the way, and long hard looks at her face as she rides with a flat are turned inward, a gradual realisation that she can no longer go it alone. Hesme makes much of her character's plight by saying very little, the intensity of her eyes communicating a mind ticking over and continually re-assessing her predicament. With unspoken brio, she competently expresses and completely earns a complexity of character without ever relying on the articulation of the script. Best known as a supporting player in films like The Grocer's Son, the films of Christophe Honoré and most recently, Raúl Ruiz's The Mysteries of Lisbon, Hesme disappears into the role with an effortlessness that should not go unappreciated. This is impressively subtle work, so much more graceful than the usual showier turn by an actor having a ball in their first lead.
Impossibly, Gadebois' is a performance of even fewer words. He has a way of not even looking directly at people – always past them – so every wayward glance, eye roll, or stilted brush off as he tries to keep things appropriate between him and Angèle is significant and interpretable. Emotionally and intellectually the film asks something of the viewer, to look again and to look closer, such that you find yourself sitting in your seat differently. Both characters demand such patience and fortitude that your whole nervous system seems to respond in a different way.
When she later proposes the idea of marriage to Tony, that's all there is to it, Hesme never gives Angèle's game away. The viewer is beholden to slow down and really think about her intentions, which aren't obviously weighted in any one direction. Choosing a good man who offers security verses an ulterior motive wedding to help get her son back, is an anxiety the film isn't particularly interested in solving. This ambiguity isn't lost on Tony, telling Angèle in no uncertain terms that he wants to be with her, but resigned to the fact that she'll need longer than the film's eighty-three minutes to learn to love him and reciprocate his affection. It's befitting then that there's no easy Hollywood moment of mutual thawing and deep-felt connection between the two. On the shared boat ride which comes closest, the couple are chaperoned by Tony's brother.
Delaporte's indeterminate treatment of character extents to her storytelling, purposely leaving gaps in the plotting and asking us to fill in yet more blanks. Blurring the line between deliberately withholding information for dramatic effect and just being confusedly vague, this ambivalence frustrates as much as it fascinates.
A scene where Angèle approaches her distrustful son in the playground, shows her watchful mother-in-law getting up to protest, but the moment of conflict is intentionally withheld – a hard cut shows Angèle riding away with the son who wouldn't even talk to her moments before. This de-emphasis on moments of action that would force characters to act out and let down their walls is a brazen refusal of shorthand emotional involvement, which in this instance stays true to Angèle's guarded instincts.
Other times, this method is so obtuse it raises questions and takes us out of the film altogether. When Angèle is called to Yohan's school after he locks himself in the bathroom, we see her stopping at a shop en route to steal a dress but not the moment where she receives the call. We're left wondering when and why such a down-and-out woman got a mobile. It's never seen and assumedly, given her wanderlust, she would not want to be contactable. Did Tony buy it for her or more likely, was it purchased on the insistence of her infrequently seen parole officer? To show the theft and not the phone call obliquely suggests that she's less worried about her son's distress and more about how he will perceive her after not having seen her for so long. Hurriedly, she changes out of her butch leather for something longer, free flowing and more maternal.
Where some of my reservations may sound like minor details I'm hung up on, there are a couple of jarring behavioural inconsistencies. Tony's mother Myriam seems to have no problem whatsoever with a wayward hussy suddenly turning up on her doorstep and often getting into loud, explosive fights with her son. As a last-minute replacement for the witch in a local production of Snow White, Angèle's illiteracy is conveniently dropped. Rehearsing, backstage with Tony, she's already committed most of the lines to memory from seeing the film multiple times as a child, but when she goes off script and has to double check over his shoulder, there's none of the expected frustration.
It's in this same scene that Angèle and Tony kiss for the first time before consummating their unpinable affair. Up against the wall a second time, the fairy tale setting circumvents pure love rather than fucking. Both experience something they've never known before, the lovers not unlike the children on the other side of the curtain, going through their lines unawares.
Atypically indulging in sentiment, Delaporte's film finally finds its soft centre. For the rest of the time its admirable toughness marks a memorable debut that's hard to love but easy to admire. And while you're unlikely to embrace these downtrodden characters, you won't soon forget them.
This exclusive interview with director Alix Delaporte and lead actress Clotilde Hesme was conducted for Cine Outsider by Timothy E. RAW at the Sofitel St James Hotel in London on Friday 23rd March 2012 as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival.