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Angel and Phoenix: Two Rising at the Toronto International Film Festival

Angel

Angel

By Ali Moosavi.

Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has had a rapid rise in the last few years to become one of the A-List festivals alongside Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Many films from different corners of the world have their world or international premiere there.

Angel (Un Ange), directed by the Belgian director Koen Mortier, follows two characters. Thierry (Vincent Rottiers) is an ex world cycling champion. Injuries and his increasing addiction to drugs and alcohol have put him on an accelerating downward path. Fae (Fatou N’Diaye) is a prostitute in Senegal. She, however, does not see herself as a whore and is trying to leave the profession and find a respectful job. Thierry’s brother suggests to him that they spend a short vacation in Senegal so that Thierry can recharge his batteries and re-start his racing career. The meeting of Thierry and Fae in a night club presents us with two characters at different stages in their lives: one trying to leave the lower depths for a brighter future, and the other crashing from the summit to a hell below.

Mortier uses colours, lighting and sound to contrast the differences. For Fae, he uses red and low lighting while for Thierry it’s blue and brighter image. When Thierry and Fae go to a dark, stuffy basement disco, the song playing is Boney M’s “Sunny.” These modes of light and colouring change as their respective situations change. The larger picture is the contrast between the two continents, between haves and have nots, between black and white.

For Fae, all the doors seem to be closed in her own country. She cannot enter hotels unless she produces a health certificate that shows she is not HIV positive. It is as though the word WHORE is printed on her forehead and she has been assigned a second class citizen. For Thierry, though, being a foreign tourist, and a famous successful athlete at that, all the doors are open.

The story is secondary here to character and atmosphere development. Both Vincent Rottiers and Fatou N’Diaye are excellent and totally believable in their parts. Motiers takes the viewers with him to the hellish journey of Thierry and keeps shifting our sympathy from one character to the other. He is particularly successful in creating the tense, depressing atmosphere and is clearly a name to watch.

Phoenix-2Phoenix (Føniks), from Norway which had its World Premiere at TIFF, is the directing debut of Norwegian actress Camilla Strøm Henriksen. Astrid (Maria Bonnevie) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is an artist who lives with her teenage daughter Jill (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin) and young son Bo (Casper Falck-Løvås). Jill’s 14th Birthday is in a couple of days and she is excited on two fronts. Their estranged father Nils (Sverrir Gudnason), a jazz musician is visiting them and, more importantly, her mother has an interview for a good job in an art gallery. These two events present a utopian mage for Jill. She is, however, deeply worried as to whether her mum, who is drinking heavily and popping pills, would make it to the interview. Jill, being the only one aware of calamitous event, decides to keep it a secret from the others so that her utopian dream does not crumble. This event changes the nature of the film from social drama to psychological drama.

Jill decides to take charge of the whole situation. She becomes both older sister and mother to Bo. The weight of the film shifts from Astrid to Jill. The main acting duties also transfer from Maria Bonnevie to Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin, and she does not disappoint.

In order to maintain the tension and the audience’s attention, Henriksen keeps revealing bits of information about the characters throughout the movie which affect our sympathies and empathy. The main theme of the film, children taking on the role of adults where the adults fail in their responsibilities, stems from Henriksen’s real life experience: she took the responsibility in her family from an early age. She and her younger brother lived with a mentally unstable mother, whilst their father was absent.

Henriksen the writer does not provide any easy solutions or closures for the dilemmas facing the characters. She does not pass any moral judgements and lets us see and judge the situation from a fourteen-year-old girl’s point of view.

Henriksen shows considerable skill in creating and maintaining tension and drawing first-rate performances from her cast, especially from debuting performers Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin and Casper Falck-Løvås. The veteran actress Maria Bonnevie is utterly convincing as a woman losing control of her life. Sverrir Gudnason, (Bjorn Borg in Borg vs. McEnroe) also impresses in the role of a musician who cannot hold long term relationships.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine(Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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