'Angel Face' ('Gueule d'ange'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Cannes_UN CERTAIN REGARD_ANGEL FACE  GUEULE D'ANGE Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Party Monster.

Marion Cotillard stars as an irresponsible party-girl mother in this debut from French director Vanessa Filho.

The title character in Angel Face (Gueule d’ange) could be either the thirtysomething, nearly always broke wild child who’s into reckless partying, heavy drinking and careless hook-ups, or her cute-as-a-button 8-year-old daughter, who is also not afraid of a good time — or even a stiff drink. In more ways than one, this good-looking first film from French director Vanessa Filho, set on the sunny French Riviera, recalls last year’s equally sunny-yet-dark The Florida Project as it charts the relationship of an irresponsible mother and her young offspring living on the fringes of society in a haze of intoxicants and irresponsibility.

There are also a few differences. Angel Face bows at Cannes in Un Certain Regard and not in the Directors’ Fortnight, as Sean Baker’s film did. And the actress playing the mother isn't some lucky unknown plucked off Instagram but a bona fide, Oscar-winning star: Marion Cotillard, whose glittering presence should help this debut get noticed, despite its shortcomings.

Single mom Marlene (Cotillard) always looks flawless, if your idea of flawless is that slightly trashy and disheveled party-girl style that includes sequined cocktail dresses, glowing skin, glittery makeup and sleek blond hair that’s just a shade or two too light to be natural. Not knowing anything else, little Elli (newcomer Ayline Aksoy-Etaix) is used to her mother’s routine. Yes, she might stumble into the apartment at 4 in the morning, too zonked to set the alarm clock. And yes, the “children’s police” — i.e., child protective services — might come calling again at any moment.

Filho, who penned the screenplay with Diasteme (Sand Castles, French Blood) and Francois Pirot (who co-wrote Joachim Lafosse’s early films), economically sketches, in the early going, the dire situation Elli finds herself in because of her mother’s behavior. When Marlene decides to serenade her latest husband (Stephane Rideau) at her fifth wedding, for example, she chooses a song about being cheated on. Perhaps that could be forgiven but what to make of the fact she thinks nothing of a quickie with some random dude in the kitchen during her nuptials? Quite quickly, it becomes clear Marlene is a woman in a kind of pathological state of oblivion about what’s appropriate behavior and how she can construct and maintain healthy relationships with others.

Things get so bad that Elli one day finds herself on her own when her mom doesn’t come back from yet another party. It's here that she runs into and then desperately tries to cling to a former diver with a heart defect, Julio (Alban Lenoir, from French Blood), who lives in a dingy trailer in a gorgeous seaside location. The film’s point of view now stays with the young girl, who has secretly started drinking as well, probably to dull the pain caused by the absence of any kind of caring adult in her life. But Filho never explicitly addresses the psychology of either character, staying in observational, in-the-moment mode instead of providing any kind of emotional insight or backstory.

It’s a gamble that only partially pays off. Cotillard, looking like one of the most glamorous white-trash fantasy figures in the history of the movies, has a hypnotic quality that will make you follow her character whatever she says or does. We might not know how she makes what little money she has or how she ended up in her situation, but she’s always completely believable and even, up to a point, strangely sympathetic as a born hedonist who can only live in the moment — and who is probably always too drunk to spell trustworthiness and dependability correctly, much less put these fundamental principles of parenting into practice.

Aksoy-Etaix’s acting, on the other hand, is natural in the more low-key scenes but feels affected when big emotions are required (a shouting match in Julio’s trailer is especially painful). And Elli’s addiction to the alcohol she keeps stealing from unattended wine glasses and stray bottles of bourbon also remains more of a gimmick than something that feels psychologically credible. Unlike the mother-daughter dynamics that were so clearly conveyed in Florida Project, here something Elli does in the final act doesn't quite have the dramatic impact it should because it feels untethered to any understanding of how the feelings of the gamine toward her mother have evolved.

Another problem is the character of Julio, who, while well-acted, feels too much like a movie creation. 

Angel Face — actually Marlene’s nickname for Elli — does look gorgeous, with The Artist cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman opting for a loose, sun-dappled style that suggests how the world might seem like your oyster if you’re always on something. Costume designer Ariane Daurat certainly had a ball and the no-doubt large makeup crew must have had its hands full with the constant need for bright blues and pinks, all that glitter and all those spangles.

Production companies: Windy Production, Moana Films, Mars Films
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Alban Lenoir, Ayline Aksoy-Etaix, Stephane Rideau, Amelie Daure, Mario Magelhaes, Joel Boudjelta
Director: Vanessa Filho
Screenplay: Vanessa Filho, Diasteme, Francois Pirot
Producers: Carole Lambert, Marc Missonier
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Nicolas Migot
Costume designer: Ariane Daurat
Editor: Sophie Reine
Music: Audrey Ismael, Olivier Coursier
Sales: Playtime
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

In French
No rating, 108 minutes