BY GEORGE MARANVILLE
As brutal as it is beautiful, The Dreamlife of Angels, tells the story of two young outcast French women and the desperation that unites them and changes their lives forever.
Isa (Elodie Bouchez) is as free-spirited as she is broke. Content to hustle up the next meal anyway she can, she wanders from town to town, picking up the odd-job only when necessary and subsisting on what she can carry in her knapsack.
Unable to find her boyfriend, she stumbles into seamstress job at a local sweatshop, where she meets Marie (Natacha Regnier) and they strike up an immediate friendship. Marie, on the surface, is the more stable of the two. Amiably holding down her seamstress job and living in a two-bedroom flat, she appears the antithesis of the more street-worn Isa. There is an edge to Marie, though, that intrigues Isa but also hints at a deeper suffering that foreshadows the film’s conclusion.
It doesn’t take long for the minimalist approach of first-time feature director Erick Zonca to chip away at Marie’s fragile facade. The apartment she inhabits is actually a loaner, owned by a young woman, comatose from an automobile accident and confined to a hospital bed. And the job, just like Isa’s at the sweatshop, is another in a long line of temporary vocations on the way to nowhere.
It’s Marie’s attempt to date out of her element that brings the dissolution of their friendship- and eventually her own ruin- as she becomes infatuated with a young, wealthy restaurant owner, Chriss (Gregoire Colin). Cliched as it may sound-as it does resemble the inevitable love-triangle formula that sinks most romantic films- the story rises above all expectations and avoids the hackneyed three-way confrontation that a less challenging film would fall victim to.
In giving both Isa and Marie strong, nearly autonomous storylines, the three-way relationship between Marie, Chriss and Isa, is thankfully reduced to merely window-dressing for a beautiful character study of the two protagonists.
This is never more clear than with Isa- in a compelling parallel to her relationship with Marie- when she develops a bond with the comatose young girl whose flat she’s occupying. Having read her diary since arriving, she begins visiting the girl at the hospital, writing in her diary and vicariously living her life.
This delicate balancing act is played out beautifully as the bittersweet, potentially trite, story of Marie and Chriss is complemented by Isa’s cinematic rebirth, through her visits to the brain-dead girl. And it becomes apparent through Marie’s unraveling that Isa is the guiding light of Dreamlife…leaving Marie the sacrificial lamb.
Through a combined effort of performance, direction and photography, Isa’s transformation is both spiritual and physical, as she goes from a lowly street wanderer early in the film, blossoming through her relationship with Marie and eventually coming to full flower through her visits to the hospital and writings in the diary. Cinematographer Agnes Godard succeeds in making the look of the film a compelling character in addition to the players.
Zonca takes a bold approach to this modest story, allowing it to unfold with little fanfare and a minimum of intrusion. Drawing on the strength of both Bouchez and Regnier, whose performances invariably anchor this story and buoy the film, he knows when to draw the viewer closer to their performances and, conversely, when to pull back. It is fitting that both actresses would share the honors at the Cannes Film Festival for best performance, as it is difficult to imagine either one in her role without the other as a counterpart.
Bouchez and Regnier, strangers to each other prior to the film, lived together as roommates during the production and it’s clear that this off-screen relationship nurtured the rapport between their characters.
Rounding out the tiny cast are a few supporting characters including Colin’s Chriss and two biker-types-Fredo and Charly-who all serve their thankless roles amiably. Used perfectly and sparingly, they add to overall theme of the story when necessary and are wisely kept in the shadows otherwise. It is refreshing to see two female actresses carrying a film, in strong and challenging roles that are traditionally assigned to a male/female combination or a Personal Best-type tryst.
Zonca’s overall approach to the film is its saving grace, as material this potentially maudlin could have easily reduced the audience to either boredom or laughter. Told with devastating simplicity, it avoids the “inevitable” conflicts and twists that mar so many domestic films of this nature.
The Dreamlife of Angels is a breakout film for all involved. Both Bouchez and Regnier carry the film as if it was theirs to do with as they please. And for first time feature director Zonca, he applies the less-is-more approach and proves himself more than adept at boldly painting the human landscape.
….It’s got subtitles.