The surest way of testing a movie's greatness is seeing it a second time. If it is just as good, it is a good film. If it gets better in the fineness and fullness of its detail, it is great. That is the case of Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels. Though riveting, it is no mere entertainment, but a necessary work of art.
Two working-class French girls, Isa and Marie, meet in a sweatshop working sewing machines. They couldn't be more different. Isa is an optimist, cheerful under the most trying circumstances. She wanders from town to town with a backpack, only to discover in bleak, chilly Lille that the fellow she hoped to crash with has moved on without leaving a forwarding address. Undiscouraged, she raises some money by cutting pictures out of magazines, mounting them on colored cardboard, and selling them for a supposed charity on the streets. And she takes odd jobs.
Marie is a sullen, unforthcoming creature who has left home because she cannot stand her father. She does her work, but comes alive only at night, though with little money to have much of a nightlife. She is house-sitting a nice, big apartment for a mother and daughter whom a car accident has left comatose in the hospital. She doesn't know much about them, and doesn't care to. But, grudgingly, she lets Isa share the apartment.
At first, the girls hit it off: Their very differences prove stimulating. They go pub-crawling and, penniless, decide to crash a disco. But the two bouncers, Frédo and Charly, won't let them in. A jeering altercation arises. Later that night, at a café, the bouncers plant themselves in two empty chairs at the girls' table, and a kind of friendship develops. Marie ends up lovelessly sleeping with Frédo, Isa remains platonic with Charly; both accept money from the boys. Isa finds a job as a sandwich-board-girl on roller-skates, from which Marie abstains. She, however, tries to shoplift an expensive leather jacket, and is caught. Chriss, a young man the girls wished to pick up earlier, and whose headlight Marie kicked in when he refused to give them a ride, happens to be nearby; he pays for the jacket. But now Marie refuses to take it, and won't even let him kiss her.
Spoiled rich kid that Chriss is -- he owns both that disco and the brasserie across the square -- he is fascinated by a girl who resists him and determines to win her. He does so by treating her like a whore, taking her to a hotel and making rough love to her. Meanwhile Isa has discovered the diary of Sandrine, the comatose girl whose room she inhabits, and starts reading it. Charmed by its freshness, Isa seeks out Sandrine at the hospital. Although her mother has died, the girl still has a slight chance of recovery. Isa is drawn to her and is encouraged by the doctor and nurse to stay and talk to the unresponding patient.
That is only the beginning of the story, and, reduced to such an outline, it may not seem like much. But what the screenplay by Zonca and Roger Bohbot, and Zonca's direction, with the artistic collaboration of Virginie Wagon, do for it is irresistible. The language, in French (and even, largely, in the English subtitles), is a distillation of the zippy, slangy bravura of the urban young, yet at times obliquely affecting. Characters come alive with all their contradictions -- surprises and predictabilities -- and we become absorbed trying to read the thoughts off their manifestly toiling faces that nevertheless remain opaque. So much of this wonderful film is in suggestion, ambiguity, indirection: half-said or unsaid things -- paradoxical behavior that yet makes a painful sort of sense.
Unlike in American films, where hack composers provide rampaging scores that tautologically hammer in obvious points-or, worse yet, blurt out that big moments are ahead -- there is no score here -- only music heard by the characters and one simple, effective song at the end. But we do get the most extraordinary -- which is to say ordinary, but slightly amplified -- everyday sounds: street noises, a train, birdsong, a dog barking, hammering, etc. At odd moments, bells are heard outside, or someone practicing scales next door. Objects -- kitchen utensils, squeaky doors, hospital apparatus -- join in the usually ignored symphony, the music of living.
And the director, combining with Agnès Godard's splendidly unobtrusive yet infinitely evocative cinematography, creates images that warm or chill, glow or threaten. Even the looks of various doorknobs tell part of the story. When Isa, at bedside, takes the comatose Sandrine's hand, the contrast between that pale, lifeless extremity and Isa's bitten nails with their sanguine but cracked polish speaks paragraphs. The closeups of Isa reading Sandrine's diary -- its bouncy handwriting, the way the words race across the page, the suspense when a page must be turned in mid-sentence -- are a dramatic event. Even more stunningly, we watch, again in extreme closeup, Isa making diary entries for Sandrine: the way she holds her pencil, how it moves sassily forward, the unexpected words coaxed into being, as well as the touching erasures. This is character in action, soul in self-revelation.
Every detail contributes, even the unruly shoulder straps of Isa's undershirt as they protrude from her boatnecked sweater. Or when Marie, smoking in bed, lets her cigarette briefly nudge the fringe of a curtain -- playing with fire. Or the daring way Zonca holds the camera on a character for what seems an unconscionably long time, but that always pays off emotionally. And the final tracking shot should make history.
And the acting! Elodie Bouchez, as Isa, has a tomboyish haircut, ever-hopeful smile, sudden submersions in affliction. Her springy manner, disarming spontaneity, growing concern for and subsequent disconcertment with Marie, add up to a performance the like of which we haven't seen since the heyday of Giulietta Masina in Fellini's masterpieces.
Yet scarcely less astonishing is the Marie of Natacha Régnier, who infuses a basically unlikable person with pathos and despair, without, however, playing on our sympathy. Superficial and ungenerous as the character is, her tragic obsession is made to shine forth in terrible splendor. Both young actresses have unexceptional looks, yet transcend into searing beauty at crucial instants. Still, they remain natural, unaffected, real. As shattered as the dreamlife of these angels becomes, so shudderingly vivid is our participation in it. As the callow Chriss, Grégoire Colin is smoothly perfect; despite his abuse of her, you can see what rivets Marie to him. And the two bouncers, seemingly simple and alike, are yet discretely individuated by their telling portrayers.
Since writing these lines, I have seen The Dreamlife of Angels a third time, and, believe me, it is still growing. This is, after three short subjects, the first feature by Zonca, a man in his early 40s who discovered European films at the Bleecker Street Cinema while living in New York. I am told that his next film, the made-for-TV Un petit Garçon, is even better. I can hardly wait.