The Dreamlife of Angels
Life breaks your heart, sometimes, and great art is nothing but life writ large. 'The Dreamlife of Angels,' carrying a mysterious, unsettling title ('La vie rêvée des anges'), is a film that comes as close to greatness as is possible in this era of small moments. French director and co-writer Erick Zonca, in his first feature film, gives us two lives of small moment, or moments, in the northern industrial city of Lille. Isa (Elodie Bouchez), arriving in town with her huge brown eyes, close-cropped black hair, and her scarred eyebrow from some unknown episode, shoulders her enormous backpack as she jauntily works the central city, picking up change by selling homemade religious cards.
She meets Marie (Natacha Régnier), prettier and -- one would think -- better at life than Isa, at a factory where they both have short-lived jobs, and Isa moves in with Marie. It's not Marie's apartment, though; a mother and daughter lived there, until the mother died in an auto accident while the injured teenager now lies in a coma in the hospital. Somehow Marie isn't at all concerned about the girl, though her condition comes to prey on Isa's mind until she begins visiting the girl in the hospital, at first simply sitting in the room, and then reading to her from the girl's own diary.
Marie and Isa, looking for a little evening action, start hanging out with two bouncers at a local club. Marie sleeps with one of them, though she doesn't care at all for him, while Isa is less needy, more content with herself. And slowly we come to see that it is Marie who is the one without a center, the one who throws herself, like a floppy doll, at whoever will control her, order her around, be powerful. And the one who does it is a bland, good-looking, self-indulgent club owner who tells her he loves her, then leaves her for another in his long line of conquests.
The film is a stunning succession of moments, each held just long enough to unveil a core of insight and better understanding, and each leading, like a clock-spring unwinding, to an end that when it comes is both predictable and a shock. But Zonca isn't out to shock us. He takes his time, he helps us enjoy the good times, he makes his moments add up to warmly textured portraits of all his characters, and not just the two women.
And Bouchez and Régnier are an extraordinary pair; for the film they've created lives of ordinary hope, pleasure, and despair, but they have invested them with the complexity that we normally expect only from a great documentary. They bicker, they fight, they care for each other, they have good times together. They are wonderfully real people, whom we might well meet ourselves, whenever we step outside. The two women deservedly shared the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1998.