Safy Nebbou’s Mark of An Angel (horribly re-titled Angel of Mine for its UK DVD release) belongs to the sub-genre of slow-burning female-centred melodramas that have appeared in the French cinema over the past ten years or so, movies such as Claude Chabrol’s chilling Rendell adaptation Le Ceremonie (1995), François Ozon’s cheeky conundrum Swimming Pool (2003), Denis Dercourt’s interesting-but-confused The Page Turner (2006) and, best of all, Phillipe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2009). Pitched somewhere between character study, mystery, and suspense thriller, each of these movies centres upon a “duet” performance by two lead actresses. Mark of an Angel makes us aware of its provenance intertextually by teaming two performers already associated with the genre: Le Ceremonie’s Sandrine Bonnaire and The Page Turner’s Catherine Frot. Here, Frot plays Elsa, a divorced woman involved in a custody battle for her young son, who becomes convinced that the daughter of an acquaintance, Claire (Bonnaire), is in fact her child, the daughter she believed to have died in a hospital fire seven years before. Elsa's suspicions seem to be based on nothing in particular, other than that old favourite: maternal instinct. But her behaviour increasingly comes to disturb and unsettle Claire.
Out of this TV movie-ish material (the film was, indeed, inspired by a true story), Nebbou constructs a taut and compelling film about loss, family, and the idiosyncrasy of belief. Elegantly structured, the film has an intriguing perspective-shift halfway through that turns it into a true duet and makes the viewer reassess what we think we know about the two women. The movie lacks the kind of brilliantly drawn supporting characters that featured in I’ve Loved You So Long, and, as a consequence, feels less fully inhabited. But the two leads offer very fine performances that keep you attuned to every emotional nuance in their shifting relationship. No Hand That Rocks the Cradle hysterics are involved; the ending, though satisfying, is if anything a bit too calm and civilised to be completely believable, and Nebbou conveniently ducks out of a couple of difficult, but dramatically necessary, scenes. Even so, this quiet but intense and thoroughly engaging film comes warmly recommended.