UK /France / Belgium. Directed by Francois Ozon / Screenplay by Francois Ozon and Martin Crisp (dialogue) / Cinematography by Denis Lenoir /Edited by Muriel Breton / Music by Philippe Rombi / Production design by Katia Wyszkop / Art Direction by Alexandra Lassen / Set decoration by Gerard Marcireau / Costume design by Pascaline Chavanne. Starring Romola Garai, Sam Neill, Michael Fassbender, Lucy Russell, Charlotte Rampling, Jemma Powell.
Angel is an English-language masterpiece from Francois Ozon, in which he brings to dizzying fruition as in none other of his films his penchant for combining a heady theatricality with penetrating psychological insight and a serious underlying intent. Inspired by the adulation accorded to the Edwardian pulp novelist Marie Corelli, Romola Garai as Angel is rightly the narcissistic star in its firmament, in this case, the faintly vulgar Victorian pile of Tyntesfield, as resolutely full of itself as Angel. The supporting cast is peerless, though none gets a look in when Angel is about.
The Life she lived or the Life she dreamed? In Francois Ozon’s Angel [The Real Life of Angel Deverell], Romola Garai (1) and John Norton’s great Gothic Revival house Tyntesfield (2) near Bristol (‘Paradise’) make this Edwardian melodrama into something wonderful, and the lead actress and her subservient (but by no means slight) cast do the whole thing without irony and without any detectable tongue-in-cheek, even though it is quite clear that Angel’s life, reportedly based on the example of the first pulp writing star Marie Corelli (3), is just another of her novels that she happens to have written and features in (the film sub-title The Real Life of Angel Deverell is heavily ironic in this respect) – for indeed, she has concocted it all, unhappily without including certain key ingredients such as love, steadfastness, maturity and the like. For much of the film I was waiting for the whole opulent eventuality of Angel’s life be revealed as a fantasy, putting us back in the grocer’s shop as she sits at her table writing it all down. Garai’s depiction of a superior, peevish and unmannerly teenager and her subsequent transformation as Angel are masterly and she matures well, like a obnoxiously overripe cheese, even beginning, towards the end, when she visits the lover of her husband Esme in a dark outfit with an immense hat topped with a stuffed bird, her eyes dark and her mien tired, to resemble one of the paler products from Dante’s Purgatorio painted by George Frederick Watts, the painter Esme so despises. Otherwise, her dresses are of a rich, ripe kind (like earlier Watts on occasion) but she has no essence of sensuality with which to fill them satisfactorily: sexually, and despite an unhappy miscarriage, Angel remains a girl who has scarcely ripened—a canny depiction of a true narcissist, on a par temperamentally with Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, where ineffable hauteur and a terrible emptiness coincide.
As with Ozon’s Huit Femmes, there are dark and serious undertones to the gentle satirical fun and his delicious playing with egregious melodrama; in Angel, dark tints obtrude, notably the wretched life of Esme, he doomed always to fall, his agony conveyed well by Michael Fassbender; the unrequited love for her mistress of straight-laced, starchy Nora (Lucy Russell – a performance of great distinction which at times nearly steals the show); and even the secret, predisposing love of the publisher (Sam Neill) for his client — not to mention Angel’s primal isolation and loneliness. The publisher’s wife (Charlotte Rampling at her most patrician and economical—another show stealer) anchors the entire film in reality and reminds us, in regular fashion, of the dream that is Angel’s life whilst admiring the girl for her spunk. For Rampling to make one of her terse visits in the film is a blessed relief as we are constantly in danger of being sucked into Angel’s impossible world and repeatedly need pulling from the quicksand. We experience the needy side of Angel’s disordered narcissism (her treatment of her mother and Esme are examples of how she bends all to her will) and we begin to see the underlying extreme loneliness – with a hint of how quickly she has forgotten her roots as she passes the grocer’s shop where she began. It is in this sense of isolation that sympathy for Angel comes slowly but surely as we see her trapped in the loneliness of her own world-invention — perhaps the only way open to an artist of creating sympathy for an unsympathetic character so completely inured to her feelings and with a constant need to have others express unrequitedly those feelings for her: we need to understand Angel if we are to feel sympathy for her, even if we don’t like her).
Angel’s miscarriage is her great calamity and she cannot connect with Esme’s love child whom she sees briefly at the house of his erstwhile mistress Angelica (Jemma Powell). The mistress pre-dates Angel at Paradise and has all the breeding and elegance that eludes Angel and which she strives for vainly. Under the seductive harmonies of the superlatively romantic score, replete with a powerful key motif, the sumptuous appointment and the overwrought decoration of the house—and of Angel herself—create a cocoon for the heroine into which we are constantly invited, with our faces straight, to enter.
Ozon continues to charm and amaze by ringing the changes on old movie forms, here with a blatant melodrama we can also take a little seriously. He is not averse either to anachronisms, for instance, the book-promotion and book-signing sequences and the moment at the theatre when an Edwardian English audience gives Angel one of those ghastly American standing ovations (or was this simply an unfortunate mistake by Ozon!?) The film pays homage to the seductive brilliance of ‘star’ writers by having Angel write about things she cannot possibly have known about, whilst gently popping the illusion of her imaginative omnipotence by the reference to the opening of a champagne bottle with a corkscrew! Such is the primacy of Angel’s will and seductive power as a star-to-be that not a word will be changed – and how right she proves to be.
This is a beautiful film visually which parades its satire, only then to keep it in heavy chains, forcing us to muse on the nature – and purpose – of art, as something that can both be made on a production line and sold for a fortune or as something that may transform our lives; Angel’s and Esme’s approaches to creation are well contrasted and, in coming to terms with the reality of life, and in close contact with Esme’s dark vision, one wonders whether Angel’s own work may now begin to mature. In the matter of Ozon’s own creativity, it is the primacy of the image, scene and emotional charge which count, every facet of the film-making devoted to the creation of a grand illusion which, primarily, excites our emotions blatantly as would a novel by Angel herself.
Some further thoughts…
Narcissism in Angel
To appreciate Ozon, we must enter into his and Angel’s dreams too and understand how he likes to operate – just as we must accept – and not fight against – his zany vision and exaggerated technique and thematicism in Huit Femmes (2002) and in Potiche (2010) (just like not fighting against the backdrops in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie  and seeing instead, as Robin Wood points out, the underlying expressionism). Like Angel, both Huit Femmes and Potiche have an underlying seriousness and all give a full account of Ozon themes.
Angel is a magnificent study of narcissism – and also the Janus-like role of the artist (monstrous and inspired) which is related and similar (see The Making of Angel, below). In its mechanisms, the film reproduces (embodies) the dream.
(a) Angel drops one thing (the young man who has come to photograph Esme’s paintings) when distracted by another. Angel is so self-absorbed she is unaware of others’ confusion – and their needs, which count for little or nothing. Narcissists at that level will think everyone knows what is going on in their heads;
(b) Angel sees what she wants and focuses on that objective or object, no matter what – nothing else matters. Esme is her waif, whom she nurtures like her cats;
(c) Angel is not prepared to learn: what she dreams up in her head is holy writ and need not bend to outside influences. She is not open to the fact that others know things she doesn’t. She believes all she writes – it must be true if she wrote it (the implication is that what she writes, filtered solely through her narcissistic prism, cannot be authentic: it is crass, as the publisher’s wife knows, whilst admiring Angel’s ability to live out her dream and get what she wants).
Also, Ozon pays his usual, particular attention to ambiguous sexuality and complex relationships: Lucy and Angel; the publisher and Angel; Esme’s promiscuity;
Angel’s singularity is reflected in her clothes. Her debased rococo décor clashes with the Gothic splendour of Paradise (Victorian Gothic Revival at its most sumptuous at Tyntesfield);
Nora’s misjudgements – Angel’s strong attachment to the little white cat Silky Boy; Angel’s indifference to the death of Sultan – the new dog will do (Nora assumes a greater – a usual –attachment to the beast). Nora and Angel cannot know one another;
Angel’s grave is subordinate to Esme’s, as a demonstration of her great love (which she could not give in life); and
Extreme close-ups of faces and full power of expression are accorded to all characters but supremely, to Romola Garai.
Angel by Elizabeth Taylor compared with Ozon’s treatment : further thoughts on narcissism
Ozon put Angel’s narcissism in the front line and sacrifices as much plot as he can so that his theme remains unalloyed. His overwhelming focus is always on Angel. The movie itself embodies the dream, as a result of the virtuostic way in which the scenes are designed, lit and acted.
In my view, Ozon follows essentially the unfolding story in Elizabeth Taylor’s highly focused novel Angel (1957), that is, that aspect highly focused on Angel’s narcissism. Taylor’s depiction of the moods and stratagems of her protagonist are uncannily accurate and show tremendous insight into the bleak world of a being for whom empathy is impossible. Angel hovers interestingly and fascinatingly between the thick-skinned and thin-skinned narcissistic type, given to flights of anger which she cannot transfer, and overwhelming feelings of loneliness, despair and the promise of annihilation – also unable to be unloaded onto others. In this respect, she is a good companion, as noted above, to Edith Wharton’s Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, one the most successful depictions of the narcissist in modern literature (and in a novel of considerable stature). In this respect, therefore, Ozon in his film remains true to a principal aim of the novel (and reinforces it with an apercu at the end of the film) – to reveal the dissonance between dream and reality which Angel strives titanically to eradicate, by eradicating reality itself – and the impossibility of doing that when it comes to Esme, the only person she cannot control and whom she may love just a little, reminding us that Angel is alleged human after all. In my view, Angel by Taylor and Angel by Ozon are as one when it comes to the narcissistic depiction.
Of course, with 250 pages at her disposal, Taylor fills out the sub-plots, not least the complex triangle of Angel, Hermione and Theo; the gradual progress towards Paradise; the sometimes faintly acerbic observations on the craft of the writer and the vicissitudes of the writer’s quest; not a little accurate and telling social commentary through the tragi-comic Deverell sisters; the worship of Angel by Nora; the acute observation of the neighbour Lady Baines, and the long , slow decline of authoress in the dream-house that has become her mausoleum.
Despite the overall thematic closeness of book and film, there are significant differences. In the book, we find:
(1) Angel’s much longer life, which extends into the second world war (at the end of the war, Angel would be approaching sixty – although she has aged prematurely, mentally and physically, only keeping her long, black hair);
(2) The long decline of Angel, Nora and Paradise House, charted in the later parts, making the book a study of old age and entombment in an ideal, as well as a superb study of the writer’s quest [see Hilary Mantel’s Introduction] and the narcissistic personality;
(3) The death of Esme. Ozon’s invention is more explicable psychologically (depression and despair consequent on entrapment – which, incidentally, mirrors mother’s decline and death due to being taken out of her element), whilst Taylor’s original conception of Esme’s drowning is quite mysterious; however, both convey well how trapped Esme is;
(4) Theo is a little in love with Angel, although, in the main, he is fascinated by her;
(5) A larger role given to the art historian Mr Fennelly;
(6) No development of the sub-plot concerning Esme’s secret affair with Laura while on leave; no child and no visit by Angel to see Laura.
And in the film:
(7) Angel has a miscarriage – although Taylor’s conception of Angel as terrified of intimacy seems more accurate a depiction of the personality type;
(8) Romola Garai is infinitely more beautiful than bony old Angel – and dies young and beautiful too!
(9) Because of the shortened timescale in the film, Nora and Theo stay younger, Hermione stays with us, and Theo is able to make his comment on dream and reality at the end;and
(10) A different treatment of the graves (in the book, the failure to complete Esme’s ‘preposterous’ monument is a nice narcissistic touch).
Sympathy for Angel?
I think both Taylor and Ozon achieve it, by revealing the depths of loneliness and the capacity for psychic annihilation that await such characters when the basis for the dream falls apart. Taylor even alludes to a growing sympathy for Angel from the remaining people around her as unwittingly, she reveals her pathos. Angel loses her husband and then her life, always within the dream, her subconsciously engineered dream-death (Silky Boy above all), in an artfully wrought dream mausoleum for herself. In the film, this is a wholly romantic dissolution without the slow decline into decrepitude, finely realised by Ozon characteristically through an immensely detailed attention to the appearance, costume and manner of his doomed heroine and her gradual transformation, the pathos in the film cannily increased by her eternal youthfulness.
For a comparably flamboyant treatment of narcissism see Auntie Mame (Morton DaCosta, USA 1958), based on Patrick Dennis’ novel Auntie Mame (1956).
The Making of Angel (documentary by Miriam Touze, 2007)
Ozon said he wanted to recreate the films of the 30s and 40s, Angel reminding him of Scarlett O’ Hara – an adorable monster. There are also excellent 50s-like POV shots. The film is a reflection on art (Esme’s art my outshine hers in posterity) – and also narcissism: she has no inkling of her effect on others. In the documentary, Fassbender says that she dies unredeemed, but that is hard to believe: she has never recognised her loss of Esme for what it really is: his death is merely the finale of her self-dramatized life. Redemption is for those with humanity whereas Angel has none except her own keen sense of loneliness when not surrounded by fawners and flatters and those who idolize like the luckless, frumpy Nora – the perfect foil to the disordered narcissist: the doormat, the one who lives for others – as Esme so perceptively remarks to that effect – or are in awe of her, like Gilchrist.
Ozon sees our reaction – and his characters’ reactions (and his own?) – to Angel as a game of rejection and subjection. Esme is in it for the money and she needs a dream marriage: otherwise, there is nothing between them for their motives clash and they are both soulless as narcissists; and yet, these soulless ones produce art, for it is in art that their feelings are unleashed and not dumped upon others.
Costumes and sets help to tell the story – a red ball gown for success; and a green one for triumph [the contemptuous, triumphal defence of Angel against feelings and commitment].
Ozon confesses a taste for the world of artifice and fakery. He sees himself in Angel and Esme – in part, in that he also creates his own imaginary world in film.
(1) Romola Garai was rightly pleased with her performance:
Garai cites this as her proudest piece. When talking about the film and the character, she said: “I think the main challenge is that she’s essentially a pretty unattractive person in many ways but you have to approach a character like that believing in them, liking them, trying to understand them and appreciating what their world view is, and so I think that was a challenge occasionally because she wasn’t always an easy character to like.” (Source: Wikipedia, 8.13).
(2) See Nikolaus Pevsner, North Somerset and Bristol in the Buildings of England Series. Penguin, Harmondsworth (1958), for Tyntesfield [house] under the entry for Wraxhall, pp.348-9:
“A medium-sized house was enlarged to a size worthy of Victorian wealth in 1862-4 by John Norton. The new work, according to The Builder, 1866, cost £70,000. The house, after Norton had finished, had forty-three bedrooms. Tyntesfield is very Gothic and a very picturesque house, with quite asymmetrical fronts. The south side in particular is an object lesson in the technique by which a High Victorian architect endeavoured to keep balance while avoiding symmetry…. The interior of the house is also in the Gothic style. A little later, in the 1880s, Henry Woodyer remodelled the staircase (with a large timber lantern) and the dining room (with three bay-windows to the right of the porch facing east).”
(3) Carl Theodor Dreyer’s remarkable second, two-hour silent film, is called Leaves From Satan’s Book (Denmark, 1920) – a four-parter about the curse put upon Satan by God, to suffer success in his temptations, and receive remission of his sentence only when a human being resists him. This is called ‘Satan’s Doom’. The source for Dreyer’s film is a novel by Marie Corelli and the four parts of the movie represent a passage through history, from the Temptation of Christ, the Spanish Inquisition, and the French Revolution, to the Russo-Finnish War of 1918, this last choice highly pertinent to Scandinavians at the time, Dreyer’s piece surely a patriotic call to ‘White’ Finland in its struggle against the ‘Reds’. Dreyer took the four-part approach following his wildly appreciative encounter with W. D. Griffith’s monumental movie of 1916, Intolerance, and Griffith repaid Dreyer’s homage with his own version of the Corelli story, The Sorrows of Satan (1926).
I am grateful to my wife Linda for an extensive discussion of the narcissistic impulse in the film of Angel.