La Vie revee des anges
(The Dreamlife of Angels)

directed by Erick Zonca
(Sony Pictures Classics, 1998)

Isabelle (Elodie Bouchez) is a drifting day laborer who sells cards on the streets that she makes from magazine pictures as she backpacks her way across France, seeking a friend who never materializes.

In Lille, a French city not far from the Belgian border, she meets Marie (Natacha Regnier) in a sewing factory where they both work, however briefly. They're an odd pair -- one full of nerve, the other on the verge of nervous collapse -- but between cigarettes they strike up a friendship that makes deep impressions on both of their lives.

Still, their friendship is a tenuous one, constantly being tested by forces from within and without. Those forces include Marie's penchant for following her mother into a life of victimhood, and Sandrine (Louise Motte), a young girl who lived with her mother in the apartment Marie and Isabelle call home.

Sandrine has been comatose in a Lille hospital ever since she was badly injured in a car crash that killed her mother. Yet Isabelle befriends her, much as she did Marie, visiting her in the hospital and watching over her until she begins to revive from the coma.

It's a relationship Marie has a hard time comprehending, and the more we see of Marie, the easier that becomes to understand.

The Dreamlife of Angels is a highly original, multilayered treatise on the difficulty of communicating with and the need to be connected to other human beings. It's an odd film, shot cinema verite style, but with a dreamlike quality. Like Isabelle, it drifts along at first, but it has a hypnotic quality that makes it hard to turn away from. The more you see of it, the more you want to see of it.

The most affecting scenes are those in which Isabelle sits by Sandrine's bedside, reading to her from Sandrine's journal, which she found in a drawer in Sandrine's bedroom. It's an act of deep human concern that goes beyond the bounds of reason and even appropriateness. And yet it's right, and Isabelle knows it's right -- even though it seems terribly wrong.

Equally telling is Marie's brief encounter with her mother. It offers a chilling glimpse into Marie's disconnectedness, and helps explain her love-hate relationship with the men she meets, and the consequences that arise.

But Dreamlife has much more to offer than stories or looks into fractured psyches. It has masterful performances by Bouchez and Regnier -- both of whom come across as very real, if somewhat quirky, people you might meet in a store or at a new job -- and the intricate aesthetic of northern France to give it the flavor and texture of a good French meal.

Americans have never been very good at making films like The Dreamlife of Angels. Fortunately, the French are, and, even more fortunately, they chose to give us Dreamlife.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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