Berlin International Film Festival

BERLIN -- If Steven Soderbergh's touchstone for "The Good German" was early 1940s Warner Bros., then Francois Ozon's inspiration for his lavish screen adaptation of Elizabeth Taylor's 1957 Edwardian-era novel "Angel" is late 1930s MGM. More specifically, it's a Technicolor costume drama about a pre-feminist woman, battling her way to fame and fortune, choosing and fulfilling her own destiny against all odds through dint of her talent and ostentatious behavior.

Like Soderbergh, Ozon isn't content with mere pastiche. He wants to re-examine the social mores and emotional complexities of a particular era's take on such a personality and the society that produced her. He is seeking a psychological truth that goes beyond cinematic artifice about a nouveau-riche woman who wills herself into existence.

"Angel," the last Competition film to debut at the Berlin International Film Festival, plays to several audiences, the most obvious being older women and cineastes who will delight in the old-fashioned process shots, framing, editing, musical score and the colors and refinery of the costumes. Ozon's name certainly assures solid boxoffice in western Europe and in all probability North American art houses.

Angel Deverell, played with fierce emotional abandon by Romola Garai, is a tempestuous and troubling heroine, who fascinates even as she appalls. Scarlett O'Hara comes to mind as a model, but unlike the daughter of Southern nobility, Angel is not to the manor born. Indeed, the movie begins with her living in a comfortably shabby flat above the provincial grocery store her mom owns and runs.

The thing that must be understood about Angel, though, is she is never, not even once, in touch with her actual reality. To fulfill a school assignment to describe her home, she describes an estate known as Paradise House on the outskirts of Norley, the town she lives in and hates.

She dwells in her fiction. When she announces she will be a great and famous author, everyone is incensed at her presumption. Naturally, before the film is a half-hour old, Angel has accomplished all of this.

Her romantic novels, written, we are led to believe, without a scintilla of literary merit, capture the public's imagination, especially female readers, before World War I. What apparently makes her fiction work is her utter belief in the world of her imagination.

She winds up buying Paradise House, brings her bewildered mother there -- even insisting on piano lessons in a hopeless effort to turn mom into a lady -- fills the house with various cats, dogs and parrots and imports a strange menage a trois into the household.

The latter includes two offspring of the local lord. Nora (Lucy Russell), a plain woman who adores Angel's novels and tries to hide a physical passion for her, joins the household as Angel's assistant and secretary. Meanwhile, Angel falls instantly in love with Nora's black-sheep brother Esme (Michael Fassbender), who has embraced the bohemian lifestyle of the starving painter.

The two are soul mates, passionate about their art. Yet Esme finds solace in the public's rejection of his "smudge" paintings, a kind of impressionism without any true soul. The two enjoy brief marital bliss until war breaks out. He abruptly enlists, which Angel interrupts as abandonment and betrayal.

Our Angel is no angel. At her best she is selfish and delusional. At her worst, downright rude, a social monster who speaks her mind and cares not whom she offends. Her taste is extravagant, just short of dreadful. But she is sincere. She exists in a world designed by her imagination.

Garai attacks the role with absolute relish. For all the histrionics, this is the performance of an actress savvy enough to maintain her character on two distinct levels: There is the highly artificial surface of mercurial mood swings and love for deep-dish theatricality. The other, percolating underneath the surface, is the steely determination, absolute self-conviction and contempt for all who stand in her way.

Holding his own as her lover, Fassbender gets the cynicism and arrogance that cover up his character's embarrassment at his failure as an artist. Meanwhile, in a terrific supporting role, Russell is the rock that grounds her mistress in some sort of reality.

As Angel's publisher and his wife, Sam Neill and Charlotte Rampling reflect the division of opinion on Angel's talents. The publisher recognizes the talent others don't. His wife sees only the manipulation and shallowness yet is oddly sympathetic when the delusions crumble.

Ozon surrounds his heroine with costumes, decor and pets to please her imperious moods. Denis Lenoir's widescreen cinematography and Muriel Breton's unruffled editing beautifully express the MGM style of a bygone era. Philippe Rombi's music is perfect faux Max Steiner, being closest to his treasured score for "Now Voyager."

Fidelite Films in association with Wild Bunch in a co-production with Poisson Rouge Pictures and Scope Pictures

Credits: Director: Francois Ozon; Writers: Francois Ozon, Martin Crimp; Based on the novel by: Elizabeth Taylor; Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier; Director of photography: Denis Lenoir; Production designer: Katia Wyszkop; Music: Philippe Rombi; Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne; Editor: Muriel Breton. Cast: Angel: Romola Garai; Theo: Sam Neill; Hermoine: Charlotte Rampling; Nora: Lucy Russell; Esme: Michael Fassbender; Mother: Jacqueline Tong.

No MPAA rating, running time 134 minutes.