Isa (Elodie Bouchez) and Marie (Natacha Régnier) are two young French women without a franc to their names. Isa is a classic gamine— a forthright, impulsive, self-reliant tomboy with short cropped dark hair and pert features. She’s something of a free spirit, but she’s also well grounded. Bold in asking for what she needs, she can shrug off rejection, but she won’t allow anyone to treat her like shit.
Marie is in almost every way Isa’s opposite— a classic, fine-boned, blond beauty with an explosive rage simmering beneath her guarded, diffident facade. Masochistic and withholding Marie is so reminiscent of the heroine of Robert Bresson’s A Gentle Creature that there’s no doubt director Erick Zonca had that film in mind when he cast Régnier, a Dominique Sanda lookalike, in the role.
This is Zonca’s first film, and it’s so graceful and intelligent and complicated in its depiction of human interaction that it takes the notion of a remarkably assured directorial debut to a new level. There’s a rare sense of collaboration— between the actors, between the director and the actors, between the director and the camerawoman (Agnes Godard), between the camerawoman and the actors— that makes the film seem lively and unpredictable even when, narratively speaking, not much seems to be going on.
Our two heroines meet in a sweatshop in the provincial town of Lille, where the gray blue light is as soft as the weather is hard. Within 24 hours, Isa is fired and Marie quits. Marie is taking care of an apartment whose occupants— a mother and her teenage daughter— have been in a car accident; Isa, who has been sleeping on the streets, asks Marie if she can stay there too. They form a fragile bond, although Isa is clearly more involved with Marie than Marie is with her. They exchange life stories, hang out in clubs and shopping malls, and pal around with two bouncers, Charlie (Patrick Mercado) and Fredo (Jo Prestia), burly guys with tender hearts.
Though Isa has no problem living from hand to mouth, Marie hates being poor. She gets involved with Chriss (Grégoire Colin), a spoiled playboy who rescues her when she’s caught stealing a leather jacket. Marie envies Chriss’s money and the freedom it buys him, and she convinces herself that he’s her ticket to a better life. Chriss is turned on by her anger and resistance, but he’s not serious about the affair. The imbalance of power makes for hot sadomasochistic sex and also feeds Marie’s self-loathing.
Isa knows that Chriss is a scumbag but she can’t stop Marie from pursuing him and humiliating herself. When Marie rejects her, Isa turns her attention to the girl who used to live in the apartment and has been in a coma since the car accident. Isa visits her daily in the hospital and tries to will her back to consciousness by reading to her from the diary that she’s found in the apartment. By helping the girl find her way back to life, Isa finds new strength and desire in herself.
Thus, while one heroine is tumbling down, the other is rising up. But The Dreamlife of Angels never feels contrived. There’s an emotional vibrancy and compassion in Zonca’s filmmaking that makes us care about these two women and the moment-to-moment choices they make, even when those choices are overdetermined. One senses that Zonca is more on the side of Isa, who finds her strength through solidarity with others of her class and sex, than with Marie, who wants to deny and escape her own identity. But Zonca also gives us a glimpse of who Marie could have become, had she not succumbed to the self-hatred taught to her since birth.
Shot with a handheld camera and lots of natural light, the film has a sensuous, radiant surface that does justice to its title. The Dreamlife of Angels is both an unusually well-observed piece of realism and a subjective vision that’s filtered through the fantasies, desires, and adrenaline rushes of two young women. Godard, who has shot most of Claire Denis’s films, is a perfect cinematographer for Zonca. The fluidity of her framing and her ability to capture urban landscapes meld with his understanding that people, no matter how alienated they are, never exist in isolation. Isa and Marie define themselves and live out their dreams through interaction with others and with their environment.
Zonca is so adroit at conveying this sense of connection that Bouchez and Régnier were jointly named Best Actress at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. The Dreamlife of Angels is ultimately an actor’s movie, and while Bouchez and Régnier carry the film, Colin, Mercado, and Prestia, as the men who, in various ways, desire them, are just as fine. Mercado gives Charlie a surprising degree of tenderness and wisdom, particularly at the moment when he tells Marie that she should go for her dream even though she’s breaking his heart in the process. Colin, on the other hand, doesn’t flinch from making Chriss a complete cad. When Chriss, who’s too cowardly to jilt Marie in person, asks Isa to tell her that it’s over, Isa belts him in the mouth. It’s what we’ve been longing to do through the entire picture.