Their eyes lock across a crowded Dakar bar. ‘s She is an exotic Senegalese beauty, he a fit professional athlete from Belgium.
But Fae (Fatou N’Diaye) has something to reveal to the Belgian (Vincent Rottiers) and his brother (Paul Bartel). She is a sex worker, a prostitute, a “whore,” a word we hear bandied about in “Angel (Un Ange),” a tragic Belgian/Senegalese romance about two ships that collide in the night.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he notes (in French with English subtitles), after a moment’s thought. What does he do for a living? He’s a professional cyclist, training and drugging his body “for the fans.” Thierry declares that Fae is no different from him. “We’re all whores.”
“Angel” is a self-consciously arty fever dream about their affair, their very different “but not that different” lives, and that word. We hear “putain” in French and Senegalese and ponder what it means today, and what it might mean to a beautiful woman who prefers to see herself “as a gazelle,” but accepts it. Fae has no other obvious means of supporting herself in a Muslim country where she is harshly judged but tolerated. She can’t come into his hotel without her sex worker “health card.
Thierry and brother Serge have come to Senegal to escape prying eyes, to live it up, await that next contract, hopefully with the team Thierry made his name with.
It’s not a movie about characters with hope, not until they’ve come together. She is trapped, avoiding getting that health card as it puts in writing what she does for a living. That’s not who she is.
Thierry talks about his dreams, and the film takes us into them. Some are nightmares, others mere flashbacks — of trauma, accidents, suicide attempts and doom. Thierry has been a star, but his little bump of coke before boarding the flight tells us that the elaborate blood doping gear he’s somehow gotten into Senegal isn’t his only encounter with controlled substances.
Serge? He’s the crude, on-the-make enabler, carrying drugs for his brother, tempting him with questions about sex with “an African woman.” Serge is white colonialist “privilege,” here to basically let Thierry as a character off the hook in that regard. Thierry is the one who sees “no difference” between himself and Fae, racially, personally or professionally.
Through their night together, Fae finds herself thinking beyond “tourist girl” status, this life where she and her colleagues have sex with foreigners “who are older than we will ever be,” who takes care of her body every bit as carefully as Thierry, because while he is doing it “for the fans,” her diet, attire, braids and make-up are “for me, but also for you.”
And impulsive “wired” Thierry? He’s babbling on extravagantly and oh-so-romantically. She might be his escape, their future might be “together.”
The writer-director Koen Mortier takes great pains to emphasize that “Angel” is a work of “fact mixed with fiction,” in an opening title. That’s understandable, seeing how it’s not-that-loosely based on a up and down life of a real Belgian cyclist.
Mortier uses a fluid sense of time and narrative — events lapse into flashbacks without warning — and the effect is quite dreamlike, with harsh intrusions of reality.
If there’s anything we know about cocaine users, it’s that elation is always followed by a bottoming out, that paranoia often accompanies that, and that there’s little an addict won’t do to instantly “fix” that feeling.
So Rottiers (“Renoir,” “Pompei”) veers from reflective to manic in this performance. His character’s nickname in the cycling world may be nicknamed “The Angel,” but it is N’Diaye’s Fae who is the otherworldly presence, here. Earthy and practical, exotic, fatalistic and ever-rationalizing, N’Daiye (“Metamorphoses”) turns Fae into a cypher, someone we can project a vast variety of values and character traits on.
Because that’s what sex workers do, sell a fantasy.
The cryptic storytelling style makes “Angel” test your patience. But I think it works, a tragic story given a wish-fulfillment fantasy underpinning, and a film that doesn’t flinch from letting harsh reality show its face. That’s the thing about dreams. They never last past the moment we open our eyes.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity
Cast: Vincent Rottiers, Fatou N’Diaye, Paul Bartel
Credits: Scripted and directed by Koen Mortier, based on a book by Dimitri Verhulst. An Oration release.
Running time: 1:47