It’s not easy taking a predictable story and throwing out the thriller element that represents its commercial appeal to focus instead on the human relations that make the fabric of the narrative. But it’s a feat that French director Safy Nebbou has learned to master.
In 2004, his debut feature “Le Cou de la Girafe (The Giraffe’s Neck) won the Naguib Mahfouz Award for First or Second Work of a Director at the Cairo International Film Festival. It was a semi-autobiographical story about a young girl who tries to find her grandmother after her parents get a divorce.
Four years and many short features and commercials later, Nebbou is back to the festival with his second long feature “L’ Empreinte de l’ange (Mark of an Angel). This time, instead of telling a story from a child’s perspective, a mother is now in the spotlight trying to find her lost daughter.
The film is based on a true story: a piece of news the director read about a mother who found the daughter she thought was dead and was able to prove her parentage through a DNA test.
Without any of the suspense that usually characterizes the cinematic – or rather the typical Hollywood – treatment of such crime stories, “Angel creates its own suspense through the build up of emotions and human interaction between the people involved.
Elsa (Catherine Frot) sees a girl in a birthday party her son is attending and instantly feels she’s the daughter she lost. She has nothing to validate her feeling, sometimes even failing to convince herself that the proof she has is nothing more than a gut feeling.
Presumed dead, the daughter has always been a ghost that haunted Elsa. Her inability to cope with the death of her daughter haunted her relations with her family and was probably one of the main reasons her marriage didn’t work out.
Driven by this feeling, Elsa subtly involves herself with the girl’s family. She befriends the other mother, Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire), but the friendship soon turns into a confrontation between two strong women.
No police or third parties are involved and the film beautifully captures the effect of this confrontation on both women. “I wasn’t interested in the thriller police side, I focused on the human relation between two women, Nebbou said.
The film gently alternates the focus between the two women and their perception of the events while juxtaposing their lives: Claire’s perfect family and Elsa’s failed marriage.
Claire dismisses Elsa as a disturbed woman and Elsa doesn’t accuse the former of anything; she’s just sure the girl, Lola, is hers. This uncertainty seeps through every scene; until the very end it isn’t clear whether Elsa is delusional or whether Claire is hiding a secret.
The film mixes reality with subtle symbolism. The mysterious death of Elsa’s daughter had something to do with a fire seven years earlier and the film starts in present day with a traffic jam caused by a fire. In contrast, water is used throughout the film to reflect Elsa’s feelings and fears. It is water that acts as the backdrop to the film’s soft ending.
“The film starts with fire and ends with water, Nebbou said.
Two days before the festival ended, Nebbou wasn’t sure if he would repeat his 2004 success and walk out with an award after this year’s closing ceremony. He did know, however, what he’d be doing a week later: working on his newest project “Signé Dumas, a film about the life of famous French novelist Alexandre Dumas (“The Count of Monte Cristo and “The Three Musketeers ), starring Gérard Depardieu.