Isa (Elodie Bouchez), in the marvelous French film The Dreamlife of Angels, is a 21-year-old vagabond with close-cropped black hair and saucer eyes. Her chunky backpack seems the most substantial part of her. We first see Isa trying to make a go of it in the streets selling handmade postcards, then working in a garment factory in Lille, in northern France, where her stitching is so inept she’s fired. Taken in by a co-worker, Marie (Natacha Régnier), who is apartment-sitting for a teenage girl hospitalized after a devastating car accident, she’s buoyant. Isa experiences life as a series of choice happenstances. She delights in seeing how things play out.
If Isa has the nascent look of a gamine, Marie, with her tight-drawn prettiness, seems prematurely hard-bitten. At first, these two hit it off: They prowl the malls and pull pranks and try to crash nightclubs; they smoke in bed together and razz men. But Marie is temperamentally Isa’s opposite; she looks upon life not as a lark but as a minefield. Her hurts are deep, too deep for someone as blissfully naïve as Isa to really comprehend. Ultimately, Marie can’t comprehend them, either. Isa lives in a world in which suffering is just a way station en route to some new Oz, while for Marie it’s her first – and final – destination. The tragedy of their friendship is that they damage each other without meaning to. Isa’s dawning realization that Marie is dangerously off-kilter suggests the way children are spooked by the depredations of adults. For Isa, Marie’s raging woe becomes a kind of violation, and yet she doesn’t condemn her friend. Isa is a rarity among movie heroines – she’s believably beneficent. If she wants her dream life and her real life to match up, who can blame her? This ardent sprite deserves to exist in a state of grace.
The 42-year-old first-time feature director Erick Zonca, working from a script he co-wrote with Roger Bohbot, captures the whims and hesitancies of friendship, the way a simple shared excursion can turn into a delicious conspiracy. When Isa and Marie are denied entrance to a rock club, they mock the beefcake bouncers, Fredo (Jo Prestia) and the mutton-chopped Charly (Patrick Mercado), and the girls’ taunts turn into street theater. They get high on their own verve, and the guys are charmed. (They end up good friends.) In Masculin-Féminin (1966), Jean-Luc Godard caught the rhythms of the mating dance of Parisian youth. Zonca has a similar affection for the ways the sexes pivot and preen for effect. The Dreamlife of Angels isn’t just a movie about what it’s like to be young; it has a rapturously rejuvenating spirit, which is what the early Godard movies had, too.
Zonca features Isa and Marie contrapuntally, as the yin and yang of feminine experience. Isa doesn’t really form any sexual attachments, but her whole being is sensualized. She wants life to astonish her in the most pleasurable ways, and her little gambols are like come-ons to fate. She forms deep attachments all at once, not only with Marie but with the comatose young girl whose apartment she occupies. Isa discovers the girl’s diary and starts writing entries for her to read when she recovers; she visits her in the hospital, telling the nurse she’s her friend – which, in a real sense, she is. Isa revels in the sheer connectedness of life; she wants to commiserate with everybody’s mood.
Marie’s mood is perpetually clouded. The vagaries of life – of men – bring her down. Sex is a subjugation she can’t abide and can’t do without. When she’s caught shoplifting a leather jacket, a slick playboy club owner, Chriss (Grégoire Colin), gets her off the hook, and although she resists his moves, they end up entangled. In a rented-by-the-hour hotel room, she and Chriss go at it, as the camera rests on her desolate, implacable face. In a scene like this, Marie has gone beyond masochism into martyrdom. She’s a sacrificial lamb offering herself up to the wolves. But she’s smitten; she wants this wolf to love her. Marie is kin to Isabelle Adjani’s Adele H., who was also destroyed by unrequited obsession. Adele’s folly, however, had a romantic fullness; Marie’s is deeply pathetic. She’s contemptuous of rapture, and yet it enthralls her – it’s the only thing that can knock her out.
Zonca doesn’t moralize about any of this. His openness to experience is so all-encompassing that we accept Marie’s calamities as unconditionally as we embrace Isa’s revels. Both ring true. So does the way the girls’ friendship not only comes apart but coheres, so that at times they seem like a pair of ragamuffin pierrettes. There’s a lovely scene where both girls audition for a job requiring them to mimic celebrities; Isa impersonates Madonna doing “Like a Virgin” and then Marie, reluctantly, does Lauren Bacall. It’s a perfect commingling of guises – the waifish tease and the sultry enigma. But this audition is only a passing fancy for the girls. Godard’s brainy, romantic youths saw themselves as the seraphim of pop culture; they transformed fandom into lyric poetry. Zonca’s young people are essentially post-pop; they have to fend for themselves, and their fantasy lives are shorn of cultural accoutrements. Isa and Marie are originals, though their predicament will no doubt resonate for a great many women, and men, in the audience.
The film gets into the quicksilver, inchoate areas of sexual byplay that most films avoid – especially the current ho-hum French crop obsessed with the adulterous bourgeoisie. And the performances are startling (the two women shared Best Actress honors last year at Cannes). Natacha Régnier seems to have imagined her role in one great arc: Everything she sets up in her early scenes pays off. When Marie first tells Isa that she “doesn’t get stuck on guys,” we can already hear the waver in her voice. Régnier’s performing style is a marvel of conceptual acting. Elodie Bouchez’s style is an intuitive triumph: She’s working out her character in front of our eyes, amazing herself right along with us. Bouchez has been acting in the movies since 1991 – most memorably in André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds – but this film should send her into orbit. She expresses what Jean Renoir, who would have loved her, also held dear: a passion for the voluptuousness of the everyday. And that’s what Zonca, at his best, expresses, too. The film wends its way into sadness, but it feels restorative by the end because the director hasn’t been false to experience.