Published April 1, 1999
The Dreamlife of Angels (in French La Vie Revée des Anges) by Érick Zonca is by far the best picture I have seen this year and one of the best I have ever seen. I can’t remember the last time I came staggering out of a movie, as I did out of this one, literally breathless with emotion. This is an astonishing, a transcendent, a miraculous achievement which gives the lie to my recent lament that contemporary French movies all seem boringly and uniformly nihilistic in character. Where was now, I asked, the life-affirming joie de vivre of a Truffaut, a Rohmer or even, on his now much-diminished good days, a Chabrol? Only Cédric Klappisch seemed to have anything approaching that kind of spirit, and he is only (so far) a middling good filmmaker. With the advent of Mr Zonca in this his first feature (produced at age 43), we must say as Robert Schuman wrote on first hearing the works of Chopin, “Hats off, gentleman: a genius.”
His film begins with a hand-held camera tagging along behind twenty-one year-old Isa (Elodie Bouchez), a young street person carrying everything she owns in a colorful backpack that dwarfs her. She knocks at a door in Lille, a bleak industrial town in the northeast of France, and the old woman who answers tells her that someone called Alain has moved to Belgium and left no forwarding address. Here and in what follows—scenes of Isa sleeping rough and making little cards out of colored paper and pictures cut from magazines that she then tries to sell on the street—we are encouraged to jump to exactly the wrong conclusions: that she has been seduced and abandoned, for instance, or that she is going to be a political statement first and a character only (if at all) second. Zonca is playing with our expectations partly because he knows that we know how easily such images can be made to suggest another heaping helping of the kind of nihilism which is in the prevailing spirit of French cinema.
This beginning is also a challenge to us to look beyond our social expectations—and it is far from the last such challenge we are given. Isa takes a job in a Yugoslav-run garment factory, though she has obviously never operated a sewing machine before. She is no good at it and after a couple of days is fired for sewing a whole batch inside out. But during her brief period of employment she meets another girl of about her own age called Marie (Natacha Regnier) who is much less warm and friendly than Isa and in fact rather stand-offish to her, but who is prevailed upon to allow Isa, who has no place to go, to come home with her. Gradually, the two become friends, though rather because Isa’s charm and warm-heartedness are irresistible, even to someone as self-absorbed as we soon learn Marie to be, than because the latter has any wish for friendship.
Marie is living in the apartment of someone else, a woman and her daughter who have been in a car accident and are both, according to Marie who does not even know them (she has got the job of housesitting their apartment through her mother), in a comatose state. She takes no further interest in them, though living among their things soon begins to pique the interest and curiosity of Isa. She soon learns that the mother has been dead for some time and that only the daughter, Sandrine, survives in her coma. She begins visiting Sandrine in hospital and reading Sandrine’s schoolgirl diary, sometimes to Sandrine herself as a way of coaxing her back to consciousness. After some hesitation she begins to write in the diary herself. In one memorable scene she takes a long time to write, as if it were a letter to Sandrine, that “your mother is dead”—and then she furiously scores it out. Somehow, the diary is not the place for such information—or Isa is not the person to write it there.
Meanwhile, Marie takes no interest in such matters and is instead preoccupied with her romantic life. At first she takes up with a fat, leather-clad biker called Charly (Patrick Mercado) who works as a bouncer. Once again expectations are defeated: Charly for all his rough looks is a decent, wise, even a humble man who knows that someone like Marie is unlikely to retain her interest in him for long. Sure enough, before long she is picked up, unbeknownst to Charly, by Charly’s boss, Chris (Grégoire Colin), a spoilt rich kid (as Marie calls him at first) whose father owns the club where Charly works and another one. Part of the fascination of the film comes from watching the sexual relationship between these two very similar people, each of whom hungers almost shockingly for the other but who, when they come together, seem unable to decide whether they hate or love the more.
It would have been easy for Zonca to make Chris a monster, but he doesn’t. Again, our expectations are frustrated. Chris is merely thoughtless. To him, as Isa notes, Marie is “just another girl.” That to Isa is the ultimate blasphemy against a human being. But it is actually rather like Marie’s own thoughtlessness about other people. That is why she and Chris make such a good couple. Neither one of them is quite convinced of the full reality of other people, and one of many possible interpretations of the movie’s enigmatic title has to do with the trancelike state in which they both seem to stumble through their lonely existences. Also, Marie and Isa are living in poor Sandrine’s house while she dreams of God-knows-what in her hospital bed. In a sense they are living her life for her—which is also dreamlife in the sense that each of them is living more in imagination than reality, Isa with her speculations about Sandrine and Marie with her unrealistic hopes of Chris.
To us it is as clear as it is to Isa that Chris has no intention of making his relationship with Marie a permanent one. Even Marie seems not to expect very much. One of the film’s most heart-rending moments comes as Marie returns from the nearest thing she has ever had to a genuinely romantic day or two alone with Chris—whom she knows has casually cheated on her—and announces happily to Isa that she might be going to get a job as a waitress in Chris’s father’s bar—and may be, eventually, a barmaid. The lowness of her expectations is breathtaking. Nor can Isa begin to persuade her that she has been deceived even in this. When Chris comes over to ask Isa to tell Marie it is over between them (Isa belts him one), she refuses to believe it. The two of them fight about this and about Isa’s inability to understand Marie’s indifference to Sandrine: “You’re living in her home and you don’t even know who she is!” Isa says incredulously.
Isa leaves. They both are soon to have to leave in any case, as the apartment is being sold by a brother of the dead woman who also doesn’t much care about Sandrine. “Whatever happens to her she won’t come back here,” he says. Isa takes to sleeping in the hospital chapel where Sandrine still languishes, while showing signs of improvement. Finally, the nurse tells her that Sandrine is positively coming around and beginning to recognize people. We see Isa go up to her room as usual and put her hand on the doorknob before turning around and going away again. She cannot bear the thought of Sandrine’s waking up and asking: “Who are you?” It would mean the end of a second intimate relationship. Instead she returns to the flat to reassure Marie, whom she finds sleeping and to whom she writes a note of elegant Gallic simplicity. “You sleep. I don’t wake you. I want to say good-bye. Every day, every moment your friend, Isa.”
I don’t know why those words affected and still affect me so powerfully, nor even why the terrible but not unpredictable event which follows did and does. From this point on, the reality of everything we see his heightened, as if we were looking at it through Isa’s eyes. Not, that is, “reality” in the debased popular sense of grossness or violence or hard-edged, unloving sex or cynicism and betrayal. Those things indeed are real, but to the nihilist sensibility they are the only reality. Zonca reminds us that reality lies also and perhaps supremely in individuality—and in the ability to comprehend the individuality and thus the reality of other people. At one point in their furious quarrel, exasperated Isa says to Marie: “I’d like to see you when you realize you need other people.” Marie replies contemptuously, “I’ll send you a photo.”
This is both the end of their friendship, the moment they realize that they’re not going to be together when and if this putative event happens, and also sums up the reason for the split. To Isa it is incomprehensible that their closeness to poor Sandrine should not affect her friend: “This girl’s almost dead! You should be glad to be alive, and you run after this jerk?” To Marie, on the other hand, it seems merely perverse to be interested in someone who can be no use to you. “Go to the dead girl, then,” she taunts her. “That’s all you care about: cadavers.” To her, who has as few expectations of friendship as she does of love, it is Isa as much as Chris who has betrayed her by preferring the friendship of the unconscious Sandrine to her own. It is impossible not to feel excruciatingly her self-lacerations as she is left alone in the apartment of “the dead girl.”
And yet it is not an unhappy film. For all its emotional power and the very unhappy events that take place in it, we come away from it with a sense of Zonca’s optimism as expressed in the remarkable resilience of the remarkable Isa. In the film’s final shots, Isa is working at yet another mindless factory job, matching colored wires to holes in assembling computer cables. The camera pulls back to search the faces of Isa’s co-workers in the factory—as if, one of my fellow critics noted, “it could have been any of them.” But this is not what I see here. On the contrary, Isa’s uniqueness is affirmed by the camera’s having been trained (as it were) to look at people the way she does—that is for the individual humanity among those whose existences are otherwise defined, like assembly-line workers, by their generic, uniform quality. For all the dreamlife we have seen going on around us, Isa is the only obvious angel, fully in touch with reality.