I have a rare day off from all work today. It's suitably wintry outside, with a dramatic thunderstorm beyond my window. And what do I choose to do on such a day? Watch a movie of course. Francois Ozon's Angel has been sitting on top of my pile of dvds to watch. As soon as I finished watching it, I felt like I wanted to write about it. I wondered what critics thought of it, and as I suspected, this little film seems to have been misunderstood (at least, in my opinion, but there are also a few good reviews). I don't claim to be an authority, but this is how I interpreted the film.
Most of the reviews I read were generally dismissive and negative. I can understand why, from one perspective. The heroine is generally unsympathetic, and the film is kitsch, melodramatic and stereotypical. But, that's precisely the point. It's melodrama, romance genre and kitsch aesthetic is not an innocent or unselfconscious mode of representation. It is instead a satirical take on traditional romance narratives.
The storyline is based on Elizabeth Taylor's book of the same name. At the turn of the century, Angel Deverell (Romola Garai), a grocer's daughter, dreams of a life of romance, riches and a happily ever after, which she attains through her writing and books. Making her riches by writing sensational romance novels for Edwardian women, Angel also sets on a path of moulding her life as if she were too the heroine of one of these novels, complete with the dashing hero, Esme (Michael Fassbender). Yet despite her often ruthless attempts at making her life reflect her romance fantasy, she quickly finds out that marriage and desire do not follow predictable paths. It is as if her own stories have betrayed her.
You don't have to like Angel to enjoy this film. Her childish stubbornness and willful rejection of reality are what drive the narrative, and whether the audience empathise with her or not is hardly the point. I feel a lot of reviewers just got stuck on this point of whether the heroine was likable or not. And my question would be, why do we have to like her? We don't have to like many male characters in other films to appreciate what they bring to the narrative, yet somehow female characters are often required to be 'nice' and nonthreatening.
Another thing that annoyed me was the lack of insight about Ozon's aesthetics in this film. It seems to me that the lush, beautiful, over-the-top and kitsch aesthetic was a way of highlighting how Angel views the world, which is shaped by fiction rather than real relationships. And by extension, this also implicates the audience, because like her, it is easy to lose yourself in such fantasy. It is a fantasy that also signals the unreality of mass-marketed romance novels, such as the Mills and Boon and Harlequin variety.
I know it's easy to poke fun at such popular romance novels. It's not my intention to do so here. The reason I don't like them is not because they are popular or are considered 'low-brow' by many people. That seems to me a rather pretentious form of criticism. Rather, I strongly dislike them because of their sexist gender politics and the way they endorse and create a limited idea of love, desire and sexuality. Their limitation is perfectly captured in this film. Angel's fatal flaw, is her inability to comprehend that the fiction she consumes and creates can be a rather simplistic form of gender relations that bypasses the complexities of men and women's real relationships with each other. That's what I found interesting about this film and I sort of feel you have to poke around beneath the surface of its melodrama to find its satiric heart.