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In Lille, two penniless young women with few prospects become friends. Isa moves in with Marie, who's flat-sitting for a mother and child in hospital in comas following a car crash. Isa is out-going, unskilled, with hopes of moving south to warmer climes. Marie usually is either angry or detached. Then, while Isa begins to visit the child in whose flat they live, going to hospital to read to her, Marie slowly falls for a rich youth. At first Marie keeps him at bay, then she not only pursues him, she begins to dream he is her life's love. When Isa tries to warn Marie, their friendship flounders. How will Marie handle the inevitable? And once they lose the flat, where will they go? Written by
Two French girls who are "not the chosen ones" (to recall Cyndi Laper) befriend one another after meeting at a sweat shop where they operate sewing machines. One of them, Marie (Natacha Régnier) is apartment-sitting for a mother and her daughter who are in the hospital, victims of an accident. The other, Isabelle (Élodie Bouchez) has been living day to day with her backpack on her back, sometimes selling handmade cards on street corners. Almost immediately there is an affinity, and they find joy and adventure in one another's company.
Part of the power of Erick Zonca's forceful and precise direction is to make us not only identify with his two heroines, but to force us see the world from their point of view. They are tossed about by strong emotions, powerfully projected by both actresses. Their lives and happiness are at the whim of forces beyond their control, the most powerful of which are their own feelings.
When I was a little boy and went to the movies I would see three films, bang, bang, bang, one after the other, and when I came out, five or six hours later, I was transformed. I had grown, and I could see the world in a different way. Of course I was a little boy and every little bit of experience was amazing and added to my knowledge of the world. Now, such transformations, like moments of Zen enlightenment, are rare and precious. The Dream Life of Angels is one of those rare and precious films that has the kind of power to make us see the world afresh as though for the very first time.
Bouchez and Régnier shared the Best Actress award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival for their work in this movie. Indeed it is hard to choose between them. Both are wonderful. Bouchez's character, Isabelle, has a gentle, fun-loving, child-like nature, tomboyish and sentimental. Marie is cynical, uptight and wired. Her emotions swing wildly from deep pessimism to a tenuous hope for something better in this life. When she is seduced, rather forcefully, by the arrogant and predatory Chris (Grégoire Colin) who owns nightclubs and is accustomed to having his way with women, she is stunned to find that she wants him, needs him, loves him. But she knows (and is warned by Isabelle) that he is just using her and will dump her. She hates herself for loving him and therefore lashes out at Isabelle who is a witness to her humiliation.
As a counterpoint to the raw animal love that Marie finds in Chris, there is the tender, dreamlike love that Isabelle finds for the daughter of the woman who owns the apartment. The mother dies from her injuries, but the daughter, Sandrine, lives on in a coma. Isabelle finds Sandrine's diary and reads it, and is touched by the sentiments expressed by the girl, and falls in love with her. A nurse tells Isabelle: "You can talk to her. She's sleeping, but she can hear you." Whether she can or not, we don't know, but to show her love Isabelle visits the comatose girl in the hospital and reads from her diary to her.
In a sense we feel that the dream life of angels is the dream of Sandrine, who is dreaming the life of the young women who are living in her apartment.
She is an angel and they are her dream, a troubled dream of raw emotion contrasted with her state of quiet somnolence.
The Dream Life of Angels is beautifully shot in tableaux of pastel interiors in which the characters are sometimes seen at offset as in portraits. In one scene we see one of the girls in the apartment while in the right upper corner is a window through which we see in clear focus a car pass in front of a picturesque building, so that the scene is seen in layers, so that we experience the inner life and the outside world at once. In another scene, Isabelle is reading Sandrine's diary, which we see over her shoulder. Just as she reads the words that excite her passion for the girl, there is just the slightest quickening of tempo as Isabelle flips the page to see what Sandrine writes next, and in that small gesture, we feel the emotions of the girls, the one who wrote the words and the one who reads them.
As a foil to the smooth, but bestial Chris, we are given Charlie (Patrick Mercado), fat motorcycle dude who is gentle and wise. This enlightened juxtaposition of character is part of director Erick Zonca's technique. We see it also in the contrasting characters of Marie and Isabelle.
Obviously this is a work of art, but it is also a triumph of film making in a directorial sense. Zonca's careful attention to detail and his total concentration throughout turn something that might have been merely original into a masterful work of art.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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