The Dreamlife of Angels

(La vie rêvée des anges, Erick Zonca, France, 1998)


In the history of contemporary French cinema after the Nouvelle Vague, the figure who looms largest in influence is Maurice Pialat. It is he who effectively introduced a new, abrasive kind of narrative structure into modern filmmaking: the story made up solely of chance encounters, violent coincidences, reckless collisions and impulsive acts.

Pialat, along with John Cassavetes, also helped to inaugurate a new cult of the actor in cinema – a style in which performers are laid bare and characterisation is more like a series of vivid, contradictory flashes than so-called well-rounded portraits.

In Erick Zonca’s impressive debut feature The Dreamlife of Angels, we find a similar fractured intensity, and a Pialat-like grasp of both the pain and grace inherent in daily life.

Isa (Élodie Bouchez) arrives in Lille, a free agent looking for some way to survive. Taking on a crummy factory job, she meets Marie (Natacha Régnier) and soon moves in with her. The film tracks the growing friendship of these women for a while, but then bifurcates.

Isa is drawn to the secret diary of a teenage girl she finds in the apartment. Identifying with this girl’s problems and yearnings, Isa begins to visit her in the hospital where she lies comatose. Meanwhile, Marie becomes obsessed with the surly, fickle Chriss (Grégoire Colin) – a man who both stirs Marie’s suppressed passions and drives her crazy with his incessant games.

“I never start with a theme”: this remark by Zonca goes right to the heart of what is most haunting in The Dreamlife of Angels. The film unfolds under a subtle question mark, shrouded in mystery. As we follow the intertwined lives of the two women, we wonder what thread really coheres or draws them together in the filmmaker’s mind. (Intriguingly, he has since collaborated with Abel Ferrara’s longtime screenwriter Nicholas St John.)

In many respects, Zonca’s approach resembles that of Robert Altman’s most intense character portraits, such as Vincent and Theo (1980) or Three Women (1977). Like in those films, we begin to wonder whether the seemingly realistic events are in fact a kind of dream, in which the different characters represent divided parts of the same personality or soul. It takes acting of the highest order to communicate both the earthly and ethereal aspects of such unusual characters; Bouchez and Régnier tackle the challenge with virtuosic gusto.

Rather than outlining a plot in the strict sense, The Dreamlife of Angels is more devoted to a far-reaching comparison of the respective behaviours of Isa and Marie. Where one is sweet and soft, the other is cruel and hard; where one takes life as it comes, the other tries to force every issue. Yet, as in Bergman’s Persona (1965), such stark differences eventually give way to uncanny overlaps, echoes and symmetries between the women and their ways of coping.

It is useless to search for any overtly moral perspective in Zonca’s examination of Isa and Marie. We are far from those chick-flicks of an earlier era in which a promiscuous girl, bent on self-destruction, is contrasted with another who is wiser and more innocent (a mode rather nostalgically and campily evoked in Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried [2001]). For Zonca, both main characters are ambiguously angel and devil, equally sadistic and masochistic in their emotional lives.

The film’s sudden finale deliberately leaves the viewer stunned and a little perplexed. Zonca refuses to clarify for us whether the dreamlife evoked by his title is an ideal or a mere illusion, a source of vital hope or a romantic curse. It is enough to have glimpsed, in the tumult of images, words and gestures, a fragment of these characters’ inner, intimate beings – and The Dreamlife of Angels brings us skilfully to the fleeting point of such a revelation.

© Adrian Martin March 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search