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The Dreamlife of Angels

A quirky portrait of selflessness

By Roy Rodenstein

In French, with English subtitles

Directed by Erick Zonca

Written by Erick Zonca and Roger Bohbot

With Elodie Bouchez, Natacha Regnier, Gregoire Colin, Jo Prestia, Patrick Mercado

Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels tries to tread lightly. With words like “dreamlife” and “angels” in the title, that’s not a bad idea. Directing a full-length feature for the first time, Zonca’s film tells the story of two young women teetering between happiness and the travails of mere existence. Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier shared the Best Actress award at Cannes last year for their roles as French twenty-year-olds who forge a friendship brought about by the random winds of life -- but who knows what else those winds can create or destroy.

Bouchez plays Isa, shown at first pasting together simple cards out of magazine cuttings to sell them for a little money. She tells a man at a cafe that proceeds go to help the elderly, and asks him if he has a daughter who might like a card. Isa’s hook fails, as the man recounts how his daughter left for the United States a decade earlier -- but he does offers her a job. Is the job a ruse, a lure to con or use Isa? Zonca thankfully dispenses with such melodrama, showing instead a real job at a clothing factory, which, after all, may or may not be better than selling homemade cards. At the factory Isa is a disaster, but, before being fired, she meets Marie and charms her into providing lodgings for the night.

Dreamlife tells the story of their ensuing life together, through simpleton boyfriends, not-so-simpleton boyfriends, and the girl in a coma whose house they’re staying at. Isa, the movie’s most obvious angel, coasts smilingly through the days even while wearing silly suits to get paid for handing out flyers. Marie catches Isa’s giddiness on occasion, but she is increasingly troubled. Pursued by Chris (Colin), a rich young snob, she’s tormented by indecision, not knowing whether to spit into his face or play him for financial security. The diary of the girl in the coma provides a tiny sprinkling of spice in this somewhat conventional setup.

What really drive the movie, though, are the performances. From Jo Prestia as Fredo, one of the simpleton boyfriends, to experienced actors Bouchez and Colin, Zonca’s utilitarian direction helps the cast coalesce into a consistent portrait of modern malaise. Regnier’s Marie glides smoothly from sweet to neurotic, with Charly, her simpleton boyfriend, touchingly resigned to avoiding her mean streak. “I’m not attracted to you,” Marie informs him after sex. Perhaps she’s trying to convince herself.

Isa is the most interesting character, her naivete intact even in the face of her own personal dose of Marie’s cutting remarks. “What job can you do -- selling cards!?”, Marie attacks. Visiting the coma girl in the hospital, Isa still has hope. It’s not altogether easy to see her as an angel, however. Conning people for money while pretending she’s collecting for the elderly, among other things, doesn’t quite strike me as angelic. And, though maybe simply out of naivete, Isa mishandles problems with Marie. As for the girl in the hospital, there are a few dark secrets in her diary as well.

The Dreamlife of Angels is an earnest film about youth. The divergent paths of innocence and cynicism, everyday joy and dissatisfaction, are all illustrated gracefully. Though most of the characters have little screen time, they are complex enough to maintain the movie’s realism. The relationship between the two women, on the other hand, is given ample room and shown in an enjoyable variety of situations. In all, what could have been a dull movie is lively and rich. Bouchez and Regnier are utterly believable, and even a less than wholly original denouement is handled with conviction. As in that powerhouse of subtlety, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, a key scene is given due weight yet depicted plainly, and the audience shares the character’s reaction. Sparingly, Zonca illuminates the boundaries of intimacy.