Un Ange (Angel) is visually impressive and emotionally devastating. It’s a one-night-of-romance-and-tragedy tale about a washed-up cyclist named Thierry (Vincent Rottiers) and a Senegalese prostitute named Fae (Fatou N’Diaye). Thierry is on the tail-end of a physical recovery cycle after a crushing crash that put him out of commission. He feels the weight of national expectations to recover, get back out into the sport and reclaim his old glory. Fae’s occupation is work to her; she refuses to get tested and become officially recognized as an escort, and chooses her partners carefully. She disassociates from the job even though it makes her life, in some ways, more difficult. Thierry desires intimacy with someone who has no expectations of him, and Fae wants someone who will see her as anything other than a product to consume.
Sparks fly when Thierry meets Fae at a restaurant while on vacation in Senegal with his brother Serge (Paul Bartel). It’s a fire that consumes them for a few hours. But their inflamed passion isn’t free from impending doom. Thierry has dreams and visions of violent death, and his drug problem exacerbates it — his behavior toward Fae shifting from loving and open to angry and controlling as the chemicals work their way through his system. But that doesn’t stop Fae from believing Thierry when he says they’ll marry and move home to Belgium. Heck, even he believes it in the moment and in the stupor. It’s a one-night microcosm of a lifelong toxic, terrifying relationship. We can’t help fear for Fae, but we also never doubt her motivation and love for Thierry, which makes it all the more tragic.
Fae is certainly the more empathetic character of the film and undoubtedly its protagonist. To the credit of the script (written by director Koen Mortier), Thierry is never depicted as heroic or tragic in and of himself. He’s not the villain, per se. He’s just a broken, self-destructive man at the end of his life, one way or another. Either the drugs will take him or he’ll make his way out the door on his own accord. Thierry’s romance with Fae is like a desperate, subconscious part of him clinging to whatever it can find to keep itself away from the inevitable.
Mortier’s visuals are on-point, really the film’s selling point. The journey these two lovers take from a brightly lit restaurant to dark nightclubs, crowded streets and red-tinted hotel rooms code the emotional tone of the moments in which our characters inhabit them. Mortier shoots everything for maximum appeal. This doesn’t mean everything is clean; quite the opposite. It reminded me somewhat of Steve McQueen’s Shame — a downward spiral, but a gorgeous one.
Angel isn’t an easy watch or a pleasant one, but it’s an engrossing story nonetheless. The characters feel three-dimensional, and care is given to making Fae’s occupation part of her character rather than her defining trope. It’s easy to fall into the pattern of fantasy as a sex worker falls in love with a troubled man. It’s been done a million times before. Certainly, the film’s title alludes to how Thierry starts to view Fae toward the end of the movie. But by giving Fae a life outside of Thierry’s perspective, Mortier makes Un Ange (Angel) doubly tragic and much more interesting. Fae is her own angel, too, in the most fleeting circumstance. It’s a gorgeous, sad, and well-balanced love story.