Published Sep 10, 2018The first scene of Angel (Un Ange) is Fae (Fatou N'Diaye), a Senegalese sex worker in the motel room from which she works. The camera circles her and reveals the room — chipped red paint on walls, blue bed covers, a rickety ceiling fan. She says when the room was displayed on the news, they attributed it as belonging to a whore. However, she does not think of herself as a "whore," but as a gazelle. It is a vivid, powerful first scene that introduces Fae as thoughtful and self-assured.
Unfortunately, Angel sets up the desire to learn more about Fae, then doesn't meet it. Instead, the film centers Thierry (Vincent Rottiers), a famous Belgian cyclist who comes to Senegal with his brother to blow off steam. He is confident, does drugs, and is clearly troubled about the state of his cycling career. We learn a lot about Thierry, from scenes relay his background, such as a terrible cycling accident where he fell off the road and suffered serious injuries, and a dark, experimental dream sequence.
Fae's details, however, are not fleshed out in the same way. We learn sex work, and her body, helped get her "out of trouble," but never learn what that trouble was, or much about her backstory. As the "I'm not a whore, I'm a gazelle" bit is repeated, in lieu of more meaningful character development, it begins to feel less powerful and self-assured, and more like Belgian writer and director Koen Mortier perhaps fell into exoticizing her, or was unable or unwilling to engage more rigorously with the character and how she makes sense of her work.
When Thierry learns that Fae is a sex worker, he agrees to the exchange after a flurry or reasoning, including that he finds her beautiful, and the rate is "less than 10 euros." He is quickly captivated by her, and wants to marry her. The rapture, on his end, is believable enough. What is confusing is why Fae would be so insistent that he "is different" than her other clients. She calls Thierry her "angel," which is tough to swallow, because actor N'Diaye's portrayal is certainly not of a woman in need of saving.
The premise of two people from different worlds intersecting for a night is certainly compelling, and the seductive, atmospheric cinematography creates a vivid sense of place and tone. But by skirting around the complicated truths of one of the characters, their love story rings false, and Angel feels like a missed opportunity.