If you’re going to shoot 80 percent of a film in extreme close-up, strictly training the camera on an actor’s face at the expense of everything around her, you better make damn well sure you give us an interesting character to consider. Marlene, a flailing single mother played by a wobbly, one-note Marion Cotillard, is not an interesting character. She’s Halley from “The Florida Project” minus any sort of humor or humanity, a self-destructive bore who never does anything to deserve our attention. “Angel Face,” by extension, is not an interesting movie. The debut feature from writer-director Vanessa Filho is a trite story about a walking disaster and the daughter caught her in path, the tedious melodrama only finding a heartbeat when it abandons the lead character and searches for change.
Marlene is drunk the first time we meet her — so drunk we can almost smell it on her breath. She slides into bed with her young daughter, Elli (Ayline Aksoy-Etaix), and asks the little girl if she loves her. It isn’t a rhetorical question. Marlene has about as little self-awareness as any sentient being possibly could, but even she has the sense to recognize that she hasn’t been a great mother. It’s the night before her latest wedding day, and she seems determined to make this one last. She even makes a spectacularly unconvincing toast about how grateful she is for her second chance.
But sure enough, barely an hour passes before Marlene is back on her bullshit, and her new ex-husband finds her having sex with some guy in the kitchen. And so she and Elli are back on their own — back to the (pretty decent) seaside apartment they share along the coast of France. The ominous piano and string score by Olivier Coursier and Audrey Ismael promises us that things are not going to go well from there (though, like many of the best elements here, the music could be a lovely touch in another film).
They don’t. Cycles are vicious. Marlene pities herself and drinks herself into oblivion. Elli, affectionately referred to as “Angel Face,” follows suit. She isn’t a particularly expressive kid, but we’re far more concerned about that than her mother ever appears to be. It’s hard not to wince as the little girl begins chasing her apple juice with hard liquor and feeding bourbon to her stuffed animals. Such specific details are unfortunately few and far between during the first hour of the film, as the situation degrades from bad to worse.
Off the rails from the start, Marlene careens into a full-blown train wreck. She’s humiliated at the supermarket when she can’t afford groceries. She’s humiliated at Elli’s school when the other moms gawk at her skin-tight party dress. She can’t go outside without the whole world sneering at her. We’re sad for her, of course, but Filho does her best to blunt our sympathies by making Marlene absolutely hopeless. “Humanity’s fucked up, that’s all,” she declares to her daughter, shirking off her last shred of personal responsibility before disappearing from the story altogether. “Angel Face” doesn’t exactly explain where Marlene goes (all we know is that she meets some guy), but it’s not like you’ll be asking after her.
That’s especially true once Elli gloms on to a new parental figure in her life, a cliff diver with abandonment issues of his own. Played by Alban Lenoir (the Jeremy Davies of France), this scruffy and sweet-natured stranger lives in a trailer by the ocean because his dad won’t speak to him anymore. Elli has the emotional intelligence to sense a kindred spirit, and she weasels her way into his life, forcing the diver to simultaneously negotiate dual roles as an estranged son and a distant father.
It’s an interesting dilemma, particularly so far as it reframes the question that Marlene always gets wrong: Can people actually change, or are we all stuck in some kind of continuum? The tectonic shifts in Lenoir’s character are subtle, but the actor makes them stick, his steely indifference softening over time. His performance is all the more impressive given that Filho churns it through some painfully forced developments, including a school play gone wrong and a splashy finale that rings false despite (or because of) how clearly it’s planted towards the beginning of the film. An unsubtle line in the first act will always pay off in the third, no matter how absurd it may seem. Perhaps some things can’t ever change, after all.
“Angel Face” premiered in Un Certain Regard at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.