TIFF Review: 'Angel'

Angel (Un ange)
(Belgium/Netherlands/Senegal, 105 min.)
Written and directed by Koen Mortier
Starring: Vincent Rottiers, Fatou N’Diaye  
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (International Premiere)
Courtesy TIFF
Twelve years ago, Fatou N’Diaye gave a heartbreaking performance as Gentille, a young Rwandan waitress at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Robert Favreau’s drama A Sunday in Kigali. Audiences who saw this touching story of the 1994 Rwanda genocide at TIFF 2006 (or in release later) will recall N’Diaye’s touching innocence as the better half of A Sunday in Kigali’s love story about a Hutu waitress and a Canadian journalist who fell in love in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cut to TIFF’18 and N’Diaye is the star attraction of another ill-fated love story, and she steals the film as Fae, a doe-eyed prostitute in Senegal who strikes the fancy of a Belgian cyclist named Thierry (Vincent Rottiers). Viewers who slept on her performance in A Sunday in Kigali won’t want to close their eyes this time around.

Admittedly, Angel probably isn’t going to be on the schedule of many TIFF-goers who enjoyed A Sunday in Kigali, unless they’re looking specifically for stories set in Africa. This twisted romance is a dark and enigmatic drama. Where Kigali had bittersweet emotions, Angel is stark and raw. It’s a fever dream of sex, drugs, and nightmares, a sweaty slice of cinematic pulp fiction that leaves one edgy.

Writer/director Koen Mortier (22nd of May) adapts a novel Dimitri Verhulst and unfolds the one-night romance between Fae and Thierry in a series of elliptical fragments. Memories and dreams collide with moments in the present tense as Thierry takes a trip to Dakar with his brother Serge (Paul Bartel) after recovering from a freak accident that cost him the Tour de France. Mortier’s oblique way of depicting the accident, however, signals early on the film’s off-kilter approach to storytelling. Angel shows the accident from a variety of angles as the news anchors watch replays of Thierry careening off the side of the road. A motorcycle nearly clips him from one angle, and it’s never clear if the fall was intentional. (It’s later revealed that Thierry had cocaine in his system.) The how or the why isn’t answered, and perhaps it isn’t important, but one thing is certain: Thierry is an out of control mess and needs someone as grounded as Fae to save him.

Fae, on the other hand, starts the film in the aftermath of their affair. She’s searching, wandering, as she hopes to escape the life of a sex worker following her traumatic one-night whirlwind with Thierry. Mortier brings their stories together with some deft cross-cutting and parallels as Fae and her colleague Binta (Aïcha Cissé) make their way to their nightly club, while Thierry and Paul discuss love and sex while touring Dakar in a taxi. Their conversations hint at kindred souls as Fae corrects Binta that she isn’t a prostitute despite her means, while Thierry advises Paul that he isn’t one for casual fucking. He needs to be in love to do it.

It’s love at first sight when Thierry meets Fae at the club. They spend a fateful night together that takes a dark turn as Thierry’s substance abuse gets the better of him. His murmurings of sweet nothings and talk of marriage gives way to toxic male rage as he treats Fae like a dirty whore, rather than a woman he professes to love.

Mortier affords both Fae and Thierry their own perspectives on the evening as Angel continues the she said/he said dual narrative throughout the evening. The conceit provides some balance to the tale, which could have been an icky male gaze fable, as it weaves between points-of-view like a television flicked back and forth between channels. Angel gives each character their own aesthetic, too, as Mortier frames Thierry’s episodes stark palettes, while Fae often seduces us bathed in eye-popping canvasses of blues, greens, and reds that reflect the emptiness of the world her. Each frame drips with melancholy or rage as the film mixes a dangerous cocktail in its quest for love.

Angel screens:
-Tues, Sept. 11 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 9:45 PM
-Thurs, Sept. 13 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 5:30 PM
-Sat, Sept. 15 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 9:15 PM