Had filmmaker Francois Ozon (“Under the Sand,” “The Swimming Pool”) been around in Vienna at the same time as Freud, he would have put the good doctor out of business in a week; this is one man who really, truly understands women and what they want, seemingly without the mighty and constricted efforts that so tortured poor Sigmund.

Ozon has consistently put his finger on the pulse of female desires with the eerie precision of a fortuneteller and shown the world what it was like to be a woman; to have her needs, her motives, her sadness and joys. What’s more, he applies the same warm yet clinical gaze on Woman whether she’s 15 or 50 (witness the brilliant female ensemble piece “8 Femmes”) and he’s now reached a point where it’s become scary. Yes he’s good, but does he have to be this good?

Ozon’s latest is “Angel,” a freakishly clever piece of cinematic conceit that spoofs the grandiose Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s while faithfully and lovingly adapting a bygone era ladies’ novel from 1957 (penned by an author named, not insignificantly — Elizabeth Taylor). Taylor was a best-selling novelist in her time, whose works depicted the lives and styles of elegant, aristocratic women. “Angel” was a tad different from her usual material in that it’s about a feisty, ambitious femme who became a celebrated novelist in her day but was dragged from her pedestal in middle age by failure and disappointment. This is just the sort of material that Ozon revels in: he loves to depict women when they’re happy and triumphant, but he also clearly relishes the task of portraying their pain and despair. The original novel is pure soapbox and full of excessive, extravagant emotions — the characters quite literally do stuff like bite the edge of their silk hankies and soliloquize on the decay of love. Ozon digs into all this with a gleeful growl and creates a world that keeps the glass-ornaments-daintiness of Taylor’s novel intact while exposing the emotional upheavals that threatened to crack the surface.

Director Francois Ozon
Run Time 134 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Dec. 8, 2007

As always, Ozon’s choice of lead actress is faultless: Romola Garai (“Scoop”) gives a brilliant performance in the title role as a want-it-all, over-reaching femme who also disarms with her gawky vulnerability. Garai’s Angel is a mass of contradictions: a brash, aggressive charmer whose imagination and self-delusion will always be bigger than her intellect.

The daughter of a single-mother shopkeeper (Jacqueline Tong), she wrote grand-scale, melodramatic stories to escape the reality of her environment and eventually talked herself into believing that her late father had been an artist, her mother a concert pianist and her own, rightful place in the world was an estate in her neighborhood known as Paradise House.

Fortunately for Angel, she was blessed with unflagging energy and a prolific pen, plus the sympathy and support of her publisher, Theo Gilbright (Sam Neill). Theo launches Angel to literary stardom while adoring fan Nora (Lucy Russell) volunteers to be her sister/protector/handmaiden/secretary. Having gotten it all, Angel decides she needs a man in her life and goes about procuring one, in the form of Nora’s ne-er do well brother and avant-garde painter, Esme Howe-Nevinson (Michael Fassbender). Marriage is a disappointment however, as Esme refuses to be the kind of hovering, ardent husband Angel had planned on. On the other hand, Angel’s not as passionate as she appears to be and often rejects Esme’s sexual advances.

Angel is a fascinating study of womanhood, and timeless in the sense that balancing work and marriage (or love) remain the trickiest, most dangerous dilemma in a woman’s life. In the end she’s betrayed by her own ambitious dreams — a sad, delusional woman who winds up loveless and alone, except for the ever-loyal Nora. Being a professional didn’t discipline Angel or anchor her to life’s ordinary truths which she never could learn to accept. Angel’s one wish was to be admired and courted and for it to go on forever — her genius, recognized and revealed here by Ozon, was that she was never shy about admitting it, and brave enough to keep wanting it, even when all evidence pointed to the utter impossibility of her being fulfilled. As one of Angel’s critics says about her: “I don’t like her at all. But I just can’t stop thinking about her.”

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