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DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS, THE (LA VIE REVEE DES ANGES)(director/writer: Erick Zonca; screenwriters: Roger Bohbot/Virginie Wagon; cinematographer: Agnes Godard; editor: Yannick Kergont; cast: Elodie Bouchez (Isa), Natacha Regnier (Marie), Gregoire Colin (Chriss), Jo Prestia (Fredo), Patrick Mercado (Charly); Runtime: 113; Sony Pictures Classics; 1998-France)
Who finds in life what they dream?

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Who finds in life what they dream? This emotionally moving film will look into that and will also examine the heartaches of two working-class girls, doing it in a way only the French can do it justice.

The petite 21-year-old Isa (for Isabelle) who is loaded down with a full backpack, wanders into the cold and grey industrial city of Lille. She hopes to stay with a male friend, but finds out he’s in Belgium and ends up remaining in Lille for the night. She hopes to pick up some cash by selling hand-made touristy postcards on the street, which leads to an encounter with a Yugoslavian who tells her about a sewing job in a clothing factory. Isa, being unskilled, gets fired after working there only one day but not before meeting a fellow seamstress, Marie (Regnier), who is the same age.

Isa is someone we think we know but really don’t, as she is prone to be friendly and willing to make fast relationships by opening her dark saucer eyes wide and offering an engaging smile showing her milky white teeth to go along with her warm personality and trim look of close-cropped black hair; but, we are, also, distracted by a mysterious scar she has on her right eyebrow, which is never explained. There are many things about Isa that are unexplained that we accept from her because she is so genuinely likable and makes us feel comfortable being around her.

Marie reluctantly puts her up in her beautiful apartment, one that she is minding for both a mother and a daughter lying comatose in the hospital after a car crash. The mother will die, leaving the teenage girl with no visitors except for Isa who takes it upon herself to make contact with the girl in the hospital. These encounters brilliantly show what Isa is all about, as she wants to will the girl back to life. For Isa life holds so much promise and light and love in it, that misery alone cannot stop her thoroughly from the angelic path she is on. The journey becomes for her only a question if her dreamlife can become her real life as she will seek the ideal and not be deterred by what roadblocks stand in her way, which is something the young can do more readily than the elderly. By the end of the film we wonder what will become of her as the camera pans the sad faces of the women who work all their lives in a factory, where Isa might have no choice but to end up. It is a place where she, too, will be exploited by the bosses, as it seems that is the pattern of life for a working girl here.

Isa’s relationship with Marie is not a very warm one, instead it is a workable one. Marie is not a trusting or caring person; in fact, she is most of the time a downer who expects the worst in life and when that happens she can’t properly handle it without going crazy.

The tall and slender Marie is very attractive, but she is also very mixed-up emotionally. Sex is the only thing that can bring her joy in this world. Her relationship with the more spiritually minded Isa is based more on convenience than on mutual admiration or anything else, since they are both impoverished and seem to be stuck because of their lack of education and inability to fit into society. They are seemingly trapped by their low birth, unable to get what they want from life. Each one dreams of a way out; but, Isa, as hard as it is to believe from her appearance, is the one more grounded in reality, the one better prepared to make a go of it in life and she is the one who grows up right in front of us.

Their encounter with the opposite sex comes on their first night out together as they try to crash a rock concert without having a ticket, but two rough looking bouncers keep them out while flirting with them. The girls are not attracted to the guys and tell them so in a nasty way, but the relationship changes to one of friendship after much banter back and forth. Marie ends up going out with the one she insultingly called fat, Charly (Mercado), and sleeps with him but tells him she doesn’t like him enough to have sex with him (she will have sex with him twice, on later occasions); while the other bouncer, Fredo (Prestia), is smitten with the cute Isa, but she is not taken with him and does not encourage the relationship to go any further than friendship. The guys feel sorry for the penniless girls; also, they want to keep up a relationship with them, so they give them some money to help them out.

The supposed meal ticket and way out of the economic trap Marie is in comes about unexpectedly as she gets caught shoplifting a leather jacket and meets again Chriss (Colin), whom she met once before under unfriendly circumstances. Chriss pays for the jacket, which she accepts with hostility. Marie is someone who is terribly concerned about appearances and of being humiliated, and is constantly unhappy about her station in life. Chriss will turn out to be a womanizer and she will be one more girl in his series of conquests, but she is too blinded by her own dreams to see this. His nightclub (his father bought it for him) happens to be the place where the girls’ bouncer friends work.

Isa, in need of money, tucks in her pride and takes on the temp job of dressing like a fool, putting on roller-skates and advertising sandwich-boards. Marie, however, will not. She can’t handle the demeaning nature of the job.

A steady rift grows between the women, as Marie thinks she’s got what she wants with her relationship with Chriss and doesn’t need Isa anymore and acts hostile toward her. All Isa is trying to do is clue her friend into not falling for Chriss, telling her that he will only drop her when he wants to, but these remarks only make Marie more insulting towards her. There’s a look of disgust on the face of Isa that seems to be saying, you are really sick. Isa finally realizes that she has to move on from here.

The performances of the two actresses was bewitching, as the two women deservedly shared Best Actress honors last year at Cannes.

The poignancy and merits of the film are in depicting accurately the reality of the girls’ lives. It is a film without one false note of sympathy or sentimentality in it. This is not the type of a girl-buddy movie as seen in some Hollywood films of late, filled with glibness and glitter and canned experiences. Here, what happens has the ring of truth to it. It is powerful in the sense that its simple telling of the tale, without trying to be cute or pedantic, turns out to be profound.

This debut film for the 42-year-old director, done with austerity and with the guile of a master reminiscent of someone like a Robert Bresson, is a work of considerable merit. It is a film that not only depicted the shattering of a friendship and a realistic look at life for the working class, but it probed into the deep-seated loneliness found within each of the girls. It did it by looking at their lives in a poetic way.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”