Bradford 2012 Review: ANGELS OF PORT-BOU

Vladimir Léon's cheerful Angels of Portbou is basically an intellectual romantic comedy stripped down to the meet-cute and not much else, and while it's a charming, sometimes genuinely magical little story, at forty-five minutes it's too slight to leave much of an impression. The lead couple take a road trip to see familiar ground through new eyes, but Léon doesn't afford us any such special treatment. Boy meets girl, girl realises boy's kind of a jerk but basically nice, girl gives boy a nudge to show him the error of his ways, we wait to see if he'll take it. If you've seen very many romcoms you'll have hit this plot at some point, and while Léon and his young actors trot it out pretty well, there's nothing much beyond one key scene that's fresh or energetic or lively enough to warrant much more than a wry smile.

Séraphin (Laurent Lacotte) is obsessed with the life and times of the German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin, and he's come to the French-Spanish border to trace the great man's final journey in 1940 - before Benjamin killed himself at the crossing to avoid being handed over to the Nazis. Arriving at the station below the first leg Séraphin is disconcerted to find the friend who was to serve as his tour guide isn't there, and worse still, he's sent a girl - his sister Gabrielle (Elise Ladoué) who seems to regard the pilgrimage with a certain bemused good humour Séraphin doesn't care for at all. They set off - yet as they draw closer to the border it becomes apparent Gabrielle has hidden depths, and her perspective on Séraphin's journey of discovery might prove far more helpful than he's initially willing to admit.

Ladoué and Lacotte do some good work with the slender amount of dialogue they get, and the obvious types they've been asked to play. Séraphin is annoying, but to be fair he's supposed to be. Lacotte does a reasonable job of suggesting a decent, good-hearted young man beneath the prickly exterior, one who seems to want other people to feel the same reverence for Benjamin he does largely because it seems to have changed his life - not out of any real sense of superiority. Gabrielle is female pragmatism, but Ladoué handles her patient attempts to get Séraphin to open up with a fair amount of skill, making her gradual revelations feel like significantly more than simple dramatic conveniences. Both of them come across as people worth rooting for, which is fortunate given the film is clearly angling for them to end up together.

The tentative bond that forms between them is believable enough to be engaging, sweet but never cloying, and the French-Spanish backdrop is picturesque if not especially striking - beyond the fact it's gorgeous scenery. Angels of Portbou is slim, but Léon does pace that forty-five minutes pretty well, and the one key moment in Séraphin and Gabrielle's relationship is excellent. Over a short night-time sequence which may or may not be a dream, Léon works up an atmosphere of hazy magical realism not unlike Song Il-Gon's A Feather or The Magicians, a haunting little piece both mythic and mundane that could almost be a short film by itself. It's a little hokey, but still effective, and serves as the strongest suggestion Angels of Portbou could have easily run to twenty minutes longer at least.

But as it stands the movie is simply too much of a passing fancy, an amusing diversion that doesn't really leave you that interested in seeing it again. The literary angle isn't much more than a macguffin. Those few scenes where Léon attempts to tie it in to the road trip with a man in a restaurant who looks suspiciously like Benjamin are strained in the extreme; you can practically see the neon signs urging Séraphin to come back to the present, talk to the living and all the rest of it. Angels of Portbou is never outright patronising or heavy-handed - even at forty-five minutes it affords the two leads space to be themselves, and never forces Gabrielle to tell Séraphin he's doing it wrong. But beyond that one midnight sequence it does feel like it's grasping wildly for meaning a little too often.

Sweet and simple is no bad thing, but when a film has little more going on than that it can seem fairly ephemeral. To go back to Song Il-Gon, the Korean director turned his recent indie shorts into full-length features and created two flat-out masterpieces in the process. By way of comparison Angels of Portbou feels like a sketch Léon never worked on any further, the brief moments of grace or humanity hints at deeper storylines that never got developed. It's not a bad movie, and its stripped-down running time never feels frustrating as such, but it's pretty transient when its high points suggest it really could have left more of a lasting impression. If you like your romantic comedies quietly artistic, by all means see Angels of Portbou if you get the chance, but don't head too far out of your way.

(Angels of Port-Bou was screened at the 18th Bradford International Film Festival, held in the UK National Media Museum in Bradford from 19th-29th April 2012.)
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