State of grace

The lovely French film "Dreamlife of Angels" manages to warm hearts without numbing minds.

Published April 5, 1999 7:38PM (EDT)

For those of us for whom French movies were a formative part of our moviegoing, there's been a special joy in seeing how, in the past few years, French filmmakers have sloughed off the petrified literary adaptations and star vehicles that had come to dominate the industry. But there was still the harshness of the new French movies to get used to. The lyricism that had characterized French film from the '30s through the nouvelle vague and even into the '70s seemed to have no place in movies attempting to capture the new face of France, with its changing racial makeup, the economic hardship and the diminished expectations of young people. Perhaps Claire Denis has been the filmmaker to best reconcile the seemingly opposing strains. In "I Can't Sleep," and less successfully in "Nenette et Boni," Denis has captured something like the village-in-a-city feel of '30s French film, even if today's villagers don't share each other's language. At times, though, the harshness of France's new social and economic realities seemed to have taken over the faces of the actors. Even in films where I admired the craftsmanship, like Benoit Jacquot's "A Single Girl" or some of the dramas of Olivier Assayas, I found it hard to care about the characters.

I can't imagine anyone not responding to Elodie Bouchez in Erick Zonca's "The Dreamlife of Angels." Her huge-eyed face topped by a shock of close-cropped black hair, her toothy smile and overbite making her lips
seem even larger than they are, Bouchez's Isa is -- from our first glimpse of her trudging along the streets shouldering a rucksack almost as big as she is -- heartbreakingly open. A young drifter who works when she can and tries to get by selling homemade cards the rest of the time, Isa depends on the kindness of friends as well as strangers. She willingly puts her faith in people, and it's a measure of how uncynical Zonca's film is that Isa isn't a fool or a victim. The scar she carries on her right eyebrow suggests that she's known what people can be at their worst. Yet she doesn't expect the worst from the people she meets. In Lille, Isa meets Marie (Natacha Rignier), a girl her age whom she encounters in the clothing factory where she picks up a few days' work. Marie invites Isa to move in with her to the apartment she's minding. This home is as temporary as everything else about the girls' lives; the inhabitants, a mother and daughter, have been hospitalized after a car crash. But the night's shelter Marie offers Isa stretches to weeks, and the two settle into both their shared living space and a camaraderie.

"The Dreamlife of Angels" is, at its heart, a mystery story about the forces that draw people together and, bit by bit, pry them apart. Marie appears as closed off as Isa is open. Rignier (who bears a resemblance to model Stella Tennant) offers Zonca's camera a face that seems hard, suspicious and yet almost trembling with fragile defensiveness. Marie harbors vague dreams of the good life, though nothing much seems capable of bringing her pleasure. When she gets involved with a local hotshot a few years older than she is, a coldhearted bastard of a club owner (Gregoire Colin, whose blankness worked against him as the lead in "Nenette et Boni" but who is perfectly cast here), the attraction is only partly what his money can offer her. Marie is just as turned on by the way his unfeeling use of her confirms her own feelings of worthlessness. (Zonca made cuts in the bedroom scenes after the European version earned the film an NC-17 from the subcretins of the MPAA ratings board.) For all the resentments she harbors and all she does to keep people on the outside, Marie is completely unprotected. When she and Isa audition for a job at a cafe where the waitresses are supposed to dress as stars, her hostile embarrassment exposes her to humiliation while Isa's game, laughing imitation of Madonna brings out the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise.

Zonca has made a film that's much like his heroine. It's not that Isa gratefully takes whatever life hands out. She's just better able to accept what life is (which is not the same thing as being complacent) without assuming that her circumstances preclude either pleasure or beauty. Zonca's approach is similarly clear-eyed, yet without rancor. "The Dreamlife of Angels" is set in the gray northern industrial town of Lille, one of those places where the ephemera of consumer culture appears to be more lasting than the centuries of tradition you can still glimpse in the architecture of the town center. The streets are dotted with discount shopping stores and fast-food outlets, as well as the occasional upscale club or restaurant for those who can afford them. Nearly everything -- the odd jobs Isa and Marie pick up, their shelter -- feels transitory. It's a rootless world Zonca is showing us, where the protective forces of home and family are shadows in the lives of people who are fending for themselves.

Zonca doesn't spell out the reasons why two women so young are living without a net. His movie isn't a socioeconomic tract. Accepting this state of things as a given, he's more interested in how people do or don't hold onto their humanity in these circumstances. Like Isa, he has the grace to know that people can surprise you. Trying to bull their way into a concert, the girls meet two burly bouncers, one of whom,
Fredo (Jo Prestia), is interested in Isa (who's not interested in him) and the
other of whom, Charlie (Patrick Mercado), eventually sleeps with Marie.
One look at these two in their biker leathers and earrings and you think,
"Trouble." But they turn out to be good guys; in their own way, gents --
particularly Charlie, a man completely at ease with himself. There's a
wonderful gentleness to the scene where he lolls in bed with Marie after
their lovemaking, delightfully unembarrassed about his folds of flesh as she
(not entirely kindly) teases him. He's even better when she breaks up with
him and the generosity of his response sends a little ache to your heart.
Mercado's performance is warm and utterly lived in. His Charlie is one of
the most believable characters in all recent movies. Zonca believes in the
importance of connections between people, even fleeting ones. That might
be summed up by the throwaway moment when Isa greets Charlie with the
traditional French kiss on two cheeks and the pair laugh with pleasure at
discovering that their friendship has progressed to this point.

The meaning of the title remains elusive. I think Zonca intends it as a poetic phrase for the atmosphere we create around others, even those we don't know, by what we do, by how we choose to carry ourselves through life. Partly as a way of thanks for the shelter she's been given, partly for reasons she can't articulate (and Zonca doesn't try), Isa visits the comatose young girl, Sandrine, whose apartment she's staying in. At first she just sits by Sandrine's side. Then she reads to her from Sandrine's own journal, which she has discovered in the apartment. Zonca doesn't point up how the
adolescent moments Sandrine has recorded seem anything but trivial in
this context, and he doesn't allow the movie to descend into false
spirituality or allow Isa to become a saint. He's simply suggesting that we
carry with us traces of the people we encounter.

Certainly we carry more than traces of Bouchez and Rignier with us after seeing "The Dreamlife of Angels." The two shared the best actress prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and their performances are flawless. Rignier, perhaps, has the more difficult role, having to draw us into a character who works to keep people shut out, but the whorling fear and desperation underneath the studied stoniness of her surface is palpable -- and pitiable. Bouchez is simply a marvel, delivering one of those performances that justifies talking about purity, both of the actresses' approach and of the emotional effects she delivers. Bouchez expresses everything through her eyes -- effortless happiness, concern and the pain of trying to understand, and quell, the unhappiness she sees in others.

This is Zonca's first feature after three short films and years of working in documentaries. Perhaps his making his feature debut at 43 offers some explanation as to how he's made a film that expresses both the eagerness to work in the medium that characterizes first films and the sureness and compassion that is the mark of a mature sensibility. "The Dreamlife of Angels" has stayed with me more than any film I've seen in months. Shot in 16 mm by cinematographer Agnis Godard and blown up, the look of the movie is extraordinarily intimate. Its seemingly episodic structure builds to a muffled wallop. It's devastating, but not depressing. And the final shot achieves the sort of unqualified compassion that can only come out of sorrow. Zonca is working in the tradition of filmmakers who attempt to melt the barriers that keep their characters from seeing one another's common humanity. And he's trying to do it in a time of diminished expectations, for both life and art. Now, when high-toned blubber-fests have been extolled as heralding the return of "humane" movies, Zonca has achieved something unexpected. "The Dreamlife of Angels" heralds a humanist cinema that neither shortchanges our minds nor cheapens what's in our hearts.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------