movie review by
David Ng

 

(© 1998 Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.)

Studio
Web site:
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Movie
Web site:
THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS

The Dreamlife of Angels
The antithesis of The Matrix is Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels. Feted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and worshipped at last fall’s New York Film Festival, this movie is now playing at a theater far away from you and has no intention of getting any closer. Here is undoubtedly the most elitist film of the year. A film student’s wet dream. It bears no ideas relevant to life outside the art house. In fact, The Dreamlife of Angels has no ideas. It’s an empty aesthetic experience. It’s an exercise in cinematic masturbation that surprisingly never reaches orgasm. It leaves us exhausted, frustrated, and looking for more.

At the heart of Zonca’s impotent vision are Isa and Marie, two French twenty-somethings scraping by in the city of Lille. When Isa gets fired from her job, Marie, in a display of what turns out to be utterly predictable sisterhood, quits and the two embark on an amorphous journey through the seedy, sleazy and art-house-sanctioned "grunge" bars that would give the Berlitz staff one massive crise cardiaque. Eventually, they meet up with two bouncers with whom they commence sexual affairs. But the only interesting thing about these short-lived liaisons is a bizarre post-coital scene between Marie (alabaster and waifish) and Charly (massively fat and hirsute) during which they pinch each other’s naked bodies and engage in incidental pillow talk.

What is so frustrating about scenes like this is that they fail to push the movie forward and, worse still, leave the poor actors imprisoned in the director’s attempts at character development. Zonca doesn’t have the ability to create scenes that feel natural. He creates artificial drama, contrived bonding episodes, and, in the final scene, an arbitrary suicide. It’s too much narrative clothing for characters who need to be emotionally naked. What would’ve worked better is pure improvisation. Simply letting the actors be on screen – to be, and nothing else – would achieve a level of honesty that Zonca strives desperately for. The actors, who’re all quite good, are never granted that level of freedom, however, and are forced to perform in virtual shackles.

Elodie Bouchez as Isa makes the most of Zonca’s screenwriting ineptitude. Her Isa is a rough-hewn, jagged-edged character with a boy’s haircut – a true French gamine. Bouchez has so much natural buoyancy that she is able to subsume Isa’s undercooked personality, creating a character who is essentially an extension of Bouchez herself. It’s an interesting approach that recalls the superstars of Hollywood’s Golden Age who would bend the characters to themselves, twisting them to their own dominant personalities. Bouchez, a rising actress in France, eats the screen in much the same way the young Guillieta Massina did. Isa’s impersonation of Madonna (singing "Like a Virgin" in a French accent) is not only the film’s funniest scene, but it’s simplest. It works so well because all signs of filmmaking are absent. It’s just us and Bouchez, and trust me, we don’t want any interference.

What truly astonishes about Bouchez is her ability to handle the subtle scenes with as much adeptness as the extroverted ones, and to wrap it up in a unified vision of her character. When Isa finds a journal of a comatose girl, she first reads it, then writes in it, and finally visits her in the hospital. Bouchez conveys a child-like sense of discovery. She effortlessly convinces us that Isa would be fascinated with someone as withdrawn as she is outspoken. It is the film’s most complex and natural relationship.

So brilliant is Bouchez’s acting genius that her Isa eclipses Marie, played by Natacha Regnier in an understated performance. Unfortunately, Marie is so underdeveloped that Regnier’s portrayal almost vanishes into the scenery. There’s nothing there to understate. Eventually, Marie starts an affair with Lille’s most eligible bachelor (Gregoire Colin) – a greasy-haired lothario who treats her like the town whore. Of course Marie is incapable of recognizing her own debasement, and she quickly spirals into a violent emotional descent. None of this is original, or even mildly interesting, save the near-pornographic scene between her and Colin, during which Marie seems to enjoy or at least tolerate being raped. Zonca’s construction of Marie never feels sincere. She’s a jumble of movie clichés: the hardened broad, the deluded sex toy, and ultimately the rejected amante. Zonca is clearly more interested in Isa, who has more screen time, and uses Marie as a filler to carry the exploitative scenes. If anyone is guilty of treating Marie like a whore, it’s Zonca.

That his two main characters remain underdeveloped in a virtually plotless story testifies to Zonca’s inefficiency. He becomes infatuated with the film’s aesthetics (hand-held camera and jumpy editing) and forgets his obligations to his actors and his audience. The characters are in service to the style, and the result is a movie without direction. Bouchez and Regnier aren’t allowed to go anywhere with their Isa and Marie. The dialogue, written by Zonca and Roger Bohbot, strains for the frankness of an Eric Rohmer film and succeeds at replicating the rhythm and force, but not the intelligence. His characters’ ideas never come into focus. Only in the end, after everything has unraveled, do we perceive the emptiness that the film’s artistry had been concealing. The Dreamlife of Angels had the potential to soar given the talent of its actors. But like many art-house experiments, it flew too close to the heat of its own daring.


[rating: 2 of 4 stars]