THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS (LA VIE REVEE DES ANGES, France, 1998) *** 1/2
It arrived with a bang when Dreamlife and its makers received a slew of nominations at the 1998 Cannes Festival, where its two protagonists shared the Best Actress prize. Ms Bouchez, a veteran of many films, is in increasing demand, and was in another, very good film at Cannes, also a first feature called Louise (Take 2). Ms Regnier is a newcomer. At the 1999 Cesar awards (French Oscars), the movie was Best French Film, Elodie Bouchez Best Actress, Natacha Regnier Most Promising Actress. At the European Film Awards, Mr. Zonca won as European Discovery of the Year, the two ladies as Best Actresses. At the Viennale, the movie was The International Critics Association's choice.
Dreamlife has no plot by Hollywood standards. A penniless drifter, the rather petite 21-year old Isa (for Isabelle), carrying all her possessions in a huge backpack, wanders into the industrial city of Lille in Northern France. She hopes to stay with a male friend, finds out he's left town, somehow spends a cold night in Lille (there are tiny clues that it is the post- Christmas season). Her attempt to pick up some francs by making postcards from magazine pictures leads to a casual encounter (a marvelous Yugoslav who has a daughter her age) who finds her a sewing job in a minimum wage clothing factory. Isa's skills being zero, she gets quickly fired, but not before meeting a co-worker, Marie, also 21.
Hesitantly, Marie puts up Isa in "her" good apartment, one that she is minding for a mother and a daughter who, after a car crash, are comatose in a hospital. By degrees, Isa and Marie form a friendship--in fact more camaraderie than affection-- though having impecunity in common are otherwise different from each other. Isa, who flashes generously her big , dark eyes and a sunny, toothy smile (Ms Bouchez's trademark), is adaptable and comfortable with her ambulatory life. We learn only little about her past. A scar over an eyebrow (apparently put there at Bouchez's suggestion) keeps catching our eye and making us wonder how it got there? Violence against Isa? A tomboy accident?
Pretty unsinkable and optimistic, she recalls a bit Godard's My Life to Live, in which Nana (Anna Karina), forced to survive through prostitution, still thinks that life can be beautiful. But unlike Godard, Erick Zonca will not analyze, philosophize, expatiate or ask the incessant questions that hallmark Godard's work. Dreamlife is entirely "what you see is what you get."
There's also a strong, loving streak in Isa. She discovers and reads, in the apartment, the diary of Sabine, the daughter. Next thing you know, she is visiting regularly the vegetable-like Sabine at the hospital (the mother had died) where she speaks to her as if in the belief that this will help her get well. It's a wonderfully touching invention .
At the other extreme, slender, taller Marie is are rebel with a huge, misanthropic chip on her shoulder. (It is later explained partly by her background, partly as the not unusual dissatisfaction among the French working class). Isa, strictly from hunger yet laughingly takes on the very temp job of dressing ridiculously (in the cold street), putting on roller-skates and advertising sandwich-boards. Marie, however will not. She is not amused. She thinks, correctly but impractically, that this is demeaning work. She is always very conscious of the humiliations of life. Yet she's also capable of fun and games.
Trying to crash ticketless a rock-concert, the girls are blocked by two tough-looking bouncers (and bikers), thin Fredo and corpulent Charly. What starts as antagonism ends up as sweet friendship, which extends to Marie sleeping--but not having an affair --with Charly. She's keeping her options open.
The main option comes in the person of Chriss (sic), a young man who is what the French call "papa's son," a spoiled fellow whose family has bought him a night-club (the very one where the bouncers work) and more. What really matters here is that Chriss is a cad. When Marie is caught shoplifting, he rescues her. In spite of her hostility extending also to him, she yields, goes to bed with Chriss, begins a short-lived but calamitous relationship which is punctuated by very real humiliations, which is never explained, in which stages of abandon alternate with stages of clenched teeth. One thing is fairly clear: that Marie herself does not know what she feels except that the wealthy man will be her ticket out of misery. How naive.
The Chriss business puts a wedge between the girls. Isa, who at first seemed to be a lightweight in the brains department, proves to be realistic, perspicacious and anxious to open Marie's eyes to her self-destruction. It all falls on deaf, hostile ears...
The movie is beautifully made in all respects, and with a strong sense of economy of means. Photography is done smoothly with super-16 cameras which allow for flexibility, the following of characters, and a near-documentary look. Style, script, editing, acting, real sets too are under the sign of economy as well as palpable intimacy in the collaboration of all involved. The film is not manufactured, instead, it records life. It also bucks the contemporary trend of movies begetting movies, of the past- movies-awareness that was the gift to us by the French New Wave but went on to become mere fashion (viz. Tarantino and hordes of Sundance-ish films). Here movie-consciousness does not replace life-consciousness. There are no riffs on past pictures. Yet Dreamlife is eminently French.
For one thing, it is character and relationship oriented. For another,
it deals with the working class, which diversely gets labeled as proletarian,
blue-collar or low-class. The paradox (a staple of French cinema), is that
the rich, petty bourgeois Chriss is in reality very low-class ethically.
Clearly too, the classic French cinema that Mr. Zonca paradoxically discovered
in New York, has marked him. He updates the "poetic realism" of (mostly)
the 1930s with its stream of "Popular Front" movies that celebrated loners
among the common men and women, that had their own streak of "miserabilism,"
and that never quite came to a halt. Witness some of Robert Bresson's works
and, even closer to our day, Agnes Varda's Odyssey of a female drifter
in Vagabond (1985).