AKA The Angel

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DIRECTED BY: Patrick Bokanowski

FEATURING: Jacques Faure, Martine Couture, Jean-Marie Bon, Rita Renoir

PLOT: A swordsman parries and thrusts with a suspended doll; a servant brings a tray of food to a handless man; a group of librarians catalog books, and then rescue a woman from a box; figures attempt to ascend a vast, steep staircase to the heavens; and a number of other actions are captured in shadow and sepia and are repeated multiple times to demonstrate variance and nuance.

Still from L'Ange (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Baseball fans calculate a statistic called similarity scores to compare players, often used to determine if a given player would sit comfortably alongside other legends. The greatest players, like Willie Mays or Babe Ruth, aren’t truly similar to anyone, but the ones who come within sniffing distance are all Hall of Famers. So it goes with L’Ange. There isn’t really anything like it, but it sits comfortably on the shelf alongside such subversive classics as Meshes of the Afternoon and Dog Star Man. Every image has been created specifically for the film, but it has heavy echoes of the found-footage assembly of Decasia or the random documentary of Koyaanisqatsi. Michel Chion, writing for Cahiers du cinema at the time of L’Ange’s debut at Cannes, described the film as “A 2001 produced under the same conditions as Eraserhead.” Whatever L’Ange may be, it keeps good company with some of the most legendarily strange movies ever made.

COMMENTS: In the video to one of my all-time favorite songs, They Might Be Giants’ transcendent “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” director Adam Bernstein plays with the theme of light to reflect the tunes narrator, a nightlight. In one particularly memorable image, John Linnell (the accordion-playing half of the duo) is captured in a light that repeatedly fades out only to spring back to life. After a moment, it becomes clear that Linnell himself is responsible for the light show; a dimmer switch on the arm of his chair allows him to control the illumination, and he is mischievously turning the lights out on his own performance.

I assume that this moment popped into my head while watching Patrick Bokanowski’s challenging feature because of the frequent interplay of light and dark. But I also contend that a similar spirit of mischief is woven throughout this movie. As harsh sepia-toned beams burst through the center of the screen only to be replaced with sequences that mimic the stage but repeat at random angles and speeds, you quickly begin to suspect that Bokanowski is playing with his audience, like a cat with a mouse.

Having made an impression with his first two short films, La Femme qui se poudre and Déjeuner du matin, he clearly decided that a feature film would be the same, only longer. L’Ange violates just about every baseline convention for feature films. It is devoid of narrative, character, or dialogue. More than half the film is drained of color, and seems to be shot directly into a spotlight. The score (by Bokanowski’s wife, Michèle) is a cacophony of musique concrete. It even lacks faces, with actors wearing loose masks redolent of Michael Myers. It is the very definition of “experimental film,” because it experiments. It tries things out. Watching the vignettes repeat, you observe closely to confirm whether or not you’re seeing the same shot re-enacted or actually played again. Food falls from a table in a recurrent loop, and we’re treated to distant birds-eye views and tight closeups, yet the plate seems to fracture in precisely the same manner, and you start to wonder if Bukanowski is just a perfectionist in search of the perfect take and we’re getting to see every option at his disposal.

A natural inclination is to ask “What’s it all for?” As images recur and repeat and cycle through again, a certain weariness begins to set it, and it’s not unreasonable to think that’s by design. Several accounts of the film suggest a subtle arc to the film, an upward progression moving vertically to a structure and culminating in the dramatic climb to the light. If this is correct, then one could easily surmise that L’Ange depicts the eternal human struggle to overcome and to better oneself in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Yet I think that might be trying too hard to apply meaning where none exists. (I went back and watched the movie again in search of the evidence backing this interpretation, and my simple mind couldn’t find it.) I don’t think Bukanowski’s film is without purpose, but his most evident intentions are those that speak to the act of filmmaking. Lighting and camera angles and carefully chosen edits are his stock in trade, and here the director is pushing these tools to the limit just to see what they can do.

I can’t honestly say I especially like L’Ange. It’s very likely I don’t understand L’Ange. But I am in awe of L’Ange, as a construction that could only take place on film and yet sits completely outside the realm of cinema as most of us know it. I barely know how to describe it. Fortunately, They Might Be Giants has a song for that, too.   


L’Ange also has the quality of nightmare, and while not following a conventional linear narrative, it presents five interlinked sequences of a very recognisable world, or at least an imaginary one close to our dreams… Difficult to define and locate, it strangeness is quite unique. That its elements are not constructed in a traditional way should not be a barrier to those who wish to cross the bridge to what Jean-Luc Godard proposed as the real story of the cinema – real in the sense of being made of images and sounds rather than texts and illustrations.” – Keith Griffiths, Vertigo Magazine

(This movie was nominated for review by Morgan, who described it as “Very atmospheric, wonderfully surreal, over the top artsy and charged with ‘Did I see this from my early childhood?’”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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