In the past few years, I have grown increasingly fond of European films. While most major American films seem intent on telling their audiences how to feel and how to think, the better foreign films take an artistic step back, eschewing music and other manipulative tricks and allowing their audiences to relate more directly to the characters.
The Dreamlife of Angels is such a film. It begins with Isa (Elodie Bouchez), a 20-year-old who owns nothing but the contents of her rucksack, arriving in the French city of Lille and looking for a place to stay. She sells cards with religious images on them; one potential customer offers her a job at his clothing factory. It turns out she’s not very good with the sewing machine, but before she is fired, she finds a roommate in her co-worker Marie (Natacha Regnier).
Marie, we discover, is house-sitting; the true residents of her apartment, a mother and daughter who have been hospitalized by a car accident, are friends of her aunt’s. But Marie herself has never met them, nor does she express any interest in them. Instead, she spends her nights club-hopping and her days working low-paying jobs while wishing she were not a working-class girl obliged to lend money to her impoverished father.
If it seems, at first, that Marie does Isa a favor by letting her have a place to stay, Isa more than repays the debt, bringing Marie breakfast in bed, joining her in her flirtatious social escapades, and providing her with a general sense of companionship.
But Isa does more than that. She visits the hospital where her hosts have stayed and discovers that the mother who owns the apartment has already died, while her daughter, Sandrine, is in a coma. Isa has discovered Sandrine’s diary back in the apartment, and so she begins to read portions of it to her. She even begins to add to it, as if to tell Sandrine, should she ever recover, about the life she lived while she was unconscious.
Generosity of spirit
In these scenes and others, we find that Isa’s generous spirit transcends her hardscrabble environment. She is not some sort of naive do-gooder; the scar that cuts across her eyebrow suggests that she has experienced the harsher side of life. But despite that, she maintains a positive, optimistic outlook, always seeking to bring out the best in the people whose lives she touches.
Marie, on the other hand, sees the world in basically selfish terms. She’s interested in what she can get, not what she can give. Even though her first boyfriend, a local bouncer named Charly (Patrick Mercado), seems to be offering her his unconditional love, she defines their relationship in essentially possessive terms: he “had” her, she “had” him.
When she catches the eye of Charly’s boss, a 20-something club owner named Chris (Gregoire Colin), Marie tries to exploit him, sleeping with him in order to boost her own social status. Unfortunately, she blinds herself to the fact that he is exploiting her, too. (The sex scene between them, thick with jump cuts, exposes the loveless, desperate quality of their affair. In its original version, it was also intense enough to garner the film an NC-17 rating in the United States.)
Gradually, the differences between Isa and Marie begin to pull their friendship apart, and it is to the credit of both actresses, who shared the Best Actress prize at the Cannes film festival last year, that their characters feel as authentic as they do (though Regnier has a bit of an uphill struggle with her ultimately unsympathetic character).
First-time feature director Erick Zonca gives the ending a bit too much closure for my tastes, but he ably articulates the differences between the other-centred life and the self-centred life, between compassion and pride. This is a film that will linger in my mind for quite some time.
— A version of this review was first published in ChristianWeek.