An early film from career-long provocateur Catherine Breillat, Dirty Like an Angel begins as a naturalistic character study focused on middle-aged cop Georges Deblache (Claude Brasseur) and his younger partner, ladies’ man Didier Theron (Nils Tavernier), situated amid the underworld milieu of the Arab and Caribbean immigrant community in Paris, and so treading on similar terrain to many of countrywoman Clair Denis’s films. But Breillat isn’t concerned so much with the immigrants and their marginal, outsider status as she is with the permeable, ever-shifting lines between cops, informers, and criminals. Deblache operates by his own set of rules, perfectly content to accept kickbacks, bully witnesses and petty criminals alike, and use his connections to obtain a better apartment than he could otherwise afford. When lifelong friend and informant Manoni (Claude-Jean Philippe) gets into hot water, Deblache stows him away in a safe house and puts his partner Theron on babysitter duty, looking after Manoni’s wife and child.
Deblache has ulterior motives for this assignment, as it turns out: In Theron’s absence, he puts the full-court-press on the newlywed’s virginal young wife, Barbara (Lio), and the film morphs into a dry run for later erotic-agonistic films: In a bravura, 15-minute scene that unfolds largely in a single take, Deblache seduces and beds Barbara, overcoming her scruples largely through simplistic reverse-psychological accusations like “You’re just a good little homemaker,” before teasingly admitting, “It feels good to fuck your life up a little bit.” Unlike later Breillat films, the sex act itself is, for the most part, elided, signaling its early-‘90s provenance, years before Romance‘s hardcore explicitness more or less singlehandedly ushered in what has come to be known as the New French Extremism.
Manoni the informant turns up dead and Deblache turns to Barbara for support. In an extended monologue, he unburdens himself of his grief and loss, hammering home his principle of “mutual respect” and its attendant cult of brotherly love, all the while Barbara stares into a mirror and methodically brushes her hair. It’s a telling image of feminine self-enclosure, if not outright absorption, whose literary ancestry can be traced back at least as far as Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé‘s equally glacial Herodias. When he’s finished, she turns on him, brusquely dismissing his lachrymose self-pity: “You should be crying for his wife and kid!”
Back in the squad room, Deblache and Theron are up to their old tricks, ogling a policewoman and discussing their prospects with a female DA who has a partiality for cops, before an anonymous call puts them onto Manoni’s killers. While they stake out the location, Theron tells Deblache Barbara is pregnant, before laying bare his rather pitiless assessment of family life: “I hate kids. If it’s a girl, I’ll probably try and fuck her before she’s 18.” His idea of family planning can best be summarized as “early withdrawal.” Of course, it’s unclear which of the two men is the actual father, an issue the film never resolves, and one that Breillat doubtless couldn’t give a toss less about. Her focus, as always, is on exposing the brutal and typically unspoken truths that underlie her character’s life philosophies. Barbara’s rude sexual awakening parallels the protagonists’ experiences in many a later film up to and including her recent The Sleeping Beauty, Deblache’s sexual manipulation echoes Fernando’s in Fat Girl, and Theron’s witheringly casual misogyny aligns with Rocco Siffredi’s in Anatomy of Hell. Dirty Like an Angel ends on fittingly ambiguous note with its frame frozen on sparring partners Deblache and Barbara caught at the uptick of another bout, reminiscent of (if in a decidedly less apocalyptic vein than) Luis Buñuel’s final surrealistic assault on viewers’ romantic sensibilities, That Obscure Object of Desire.
Definitely not the worst transfer I've seen from Pathfinder; though the image can get a trifle soft and fuzzy from time to time, by and large it's sharp and clear, and eminently watchable, especially for such a little-known and low-profile title. The French stereo track is fine, dialogue is clear, and the occasional music, like a tango that accompanies one of Georges and Barbara's trysts, is rendered well.
A 15-minute interview with Catherine Breillat, conducted earlier this year, in which the writer-director discusses the varying reception of her films at home and abroad, describes the female lead in Romance as "a crystal sword, like Joan of Arc on the pyre" and traces her ancestry to Dirty Like an Angel's Barbara, and puts forward the questionable assertion that the only difference between men and women are their sex organs. About cinematic technique she says, "Cinema is seeing what you shouldn't see. In the middle of the bodies. Not watching [objectively]. That's where things are obscure. That's what you have to film." Trivia of note: Claude-Jean Philippe, who played Manoni the informant, is one of France's leading film critics and, incidentally, despises Breillat's films in general.
In Dirty Like an Angel, Catherine Breillat straddles the line between observational slice-of-life dramatics and the tumultuous sexual tug of war that dominates her subsequent body of work.