It’s a general rule of thumb that any film that starts with an wedding usually doesn’t have a happy ending (see: The Godfather). This is definitely the case in Angel Face, in which the alcoholic Marlene (Marion Cotillard) instantly destroys her own celebration by having sex with one of the groom’s friends in a storage room. Quietly watching her mother as she destroys herself is eleven year-old Elli (Ayline Etaix), who quietly parrots Marlene by stealing sips of wine when no one is looking. Things get rather more complicated when Marlene leaves her daughter for a man she meets in a club. Left to fend for herself, Elli starts taking imitation to a whole new level. The resultant story is a dark tale of parental neglect that shows what might have happened if Kevin in Home Alone was suffering from mommy issues.
Angel Face dives into the type of heavy material featuring kids and disturbing behaviour that Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. This will make it a very hard sell to get North American distribution, even with Marion Cotillard playing the role of the mother, but first-time director Vanessa Filho never seems to exploit the young girl, instead portraying her plight with a large degree of sympathy. The movie would actually work perfectly as a warning against the dangers of alcohol; even though Marlene loves her daughter, the constant need for a drink rots her ability to make clear decisions. However, it is when Cotillard leaves that the film is given space to breathe.
Cotillard is a great actress and has played working-class roles before to great effect in films such as Two Days, One Night (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), but in Angel Face she tries too hard to get it right, making her performance feel inauthentic. While it is generous of her to extend her talent to a debut director, Filho doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in the face of such a famous actress to rein the histrionics in. Buried within Cotillard’s portrayal of a woman whose only seeming joy in life is drinking and meaningless sex is a critique of a town that offers her no options. But as she screams and hollers at the slightest inconvenience, these nuances are lost in favour of trite melodrama.
She is actually upstaged by newcomer Ayline Etaix, playing a young and confused girl with a remarkable degree of confidence. Hers is a subtler performance, taking in the world around her and acting out in ways that are shocking yet understandable. Once left on her own, Angel Face becomes much more intriguing.
Taking place on the stunning Cote D’Azur, Angel Face joins a recent line of mother-daughter relationship dramas that play out against forgotten tourist towns. Last year saw the near-perfect The Florida Project, while Daughter of Mine premiered to a positive reception at the Berlinale. The heat of these climates is used as a means to amplify emotional passions, doing some of the heavy lifting when it comes to cooking up a tale’s dramatic power.
Angel Face, however, doesn’t have the same grasp of place as those other two. While there are classic signifiers of loss, such as abandoned swimming pools and pastel-coloured houses, lonely boardwalks, and dramatic cliffs, Angel Face doesn’t quite know how to use them effectively to lend its story more dramatic power. This is somewhat compensated by the score — featuring heavy piano chords and strings — but the music is laid on too thick to work.
The end follows another rule of cinema that has to be obeyed at all times: if a movie is set by the sea, it must end with the sea being used as the ultimate vague metaphor for the travails of life. In Angel Face, it seems to represent the all-consuming effects of alcohol consumption, drowning its characters rationality and forcing them to make poor decisions. This is rather deep, and coupled with the subject matter, brave territory indeed. Give her another couple of tries to perfect her technique, and Filho could become one to watch.