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Weekly Alibi "The Dreamlife of Angels"

By Devin D. O'Leary

MAY 24, 1999:  The Dreamlife of Angels is one of those rare, mythical beasts: a work of genuine cinematic art. Within minutes of the film's unspooling, it is obvious that first-time feature film maker Erick Zonca was born for this medium. The film has garnered waves of critical acclaim in Europe, nabbed a Best Actress award at last year's Cannes film fest and snagged multiple nominations at the recent César Awards (France's equivalent to the Oscar). What is so remarkable about the film is its overwhelmingly humble nature. There are no car chases. There are no gunfights. There is no weighty symbolism. There is--truth be told--only the simplest thread of plot. The Dreamlife of Angels is about nothing more than the daily interaction between human beings. And yet nearly every moment of the film has a visceral impact--a measurable feeling that leaks in through the eyes and penetrates down to the bones.

Elodie Bouchez stars as Isa, a gamin in the classic mold--a big-eyed street waif archetype that goes back at least as far as Guilietta Masina's doe-eyed perf in La Strada (Federico Fellini's 1954 masterpiece). Dreamlife begins as Isa drifts into the ruddy industrial town of Lille, France, with her rucksack in tow. This 21-year-old free spirit has arrived in town looking for an old acquaintance who has, apparently, moved on to greener pastures. Homeless, penniless and friendless, Isa scares up a temporary job at a local clothing factory. Inept in any marketable capacity, Isa stumbles her way through her first day of work and manages to insinuate herself with another young co-worker named Marie (Natacha Régnier).

Crashing on the couch in Marie's flat, Isa soon develops a kind of bookend compatibility with her fellow wage slave. Whereas Isa is innocent and gregarious, Marie is sensitive and brittle. Isa has skated through life with an insouciance (to steal a nice big word from our Frenchy friends) and a streetwise wisdom. Marie, on the other hand, seems to have had a harder time of it--emerging from her teens unsociable, hypersensitive and cursed with a keen intelligence that refuses to shield her from the world's crueler truths. Together, though, the girls make a fine team, accentuating each other's strengths, downplaying each other's weaknesses and acting--for all the world--like lifelong pals.

Marie is housesitting (although "squatting" is a little more like it) in the nicely appointed apartment of a mother and daughter who were involved in a serious car accident. Both are stuck in the hospital in comas with little hope of recovery. Thanks to the serendipity of their housing situation, the girls are able to quit their hated jobs at the clothing factory and drift from one temporary gig to another. These could be any two twentysomethings in any city in the world. Here is where the reality of writer/director Zonca's world pays off in spades. Though mundane, the interactions between Isa and Marie are always dynamic. There is such a unguarded honesty here (thanks largely to the naturalistic work of the actors), that viewers may at times feel an uncomfortable closeness with these two women. The characters are so vivid, so real, that they become like fondly remembered friends from the back files of one's memory.

In time, Marie finds herself entangled with a weasely local club owner, and Isa begins to visit the comatose daughter of the (now deceased) apartment owner in the hospital. Again, the machinations of the plot are relatively unimportant--it is the way the characters act and interact that gives The Dreamlife of Angels its flush of emotional immediacy. Marie is obviously scarred by something in her past and, despite her standoffish nature, still craves the closeness of other human beings--even a man who clearly does not love her. Isa, on the other hand, finds an unexpected grounding in reality in her visits to the hospital. Finding the comatose girl's diary in the apartment, Isa begins to read about the simple hopes and dreams of a young girl not unlike herself. Seeing that innocent young life struck down so callously gives Isa pause to think. Before long, Isa is becoming the responsible head of household, while Marie's emotional neediness spins out of control.

Anyone who has ever had a roommate will understand the complex dynamic of having to live with another human being. As entangled as we can become in another person's life, we are all--in the end--separate entities free to choose our own paths, to make our own mistakes, to live our own lives. Much as we know another person, we can never truly know another person. It's hard not to get involved with the characters on display in Dreamlife of Angels, and the same paradox applies. We can no more alter the lives of the characters on screen than we can those of our friends, relatives or neighbors.

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