When we first see Isa, the 21-year-old heroine of Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, she's trudging under the weight of a huge backpack through the chill dawn of an almost featureless European city. With her close-cropped dark hair and street urchin's sniffle, she seems to be carrying the burden of the world on her shoulders.
Just moments after Zonca's arresting first scene, we start to see how stoic and resourceful this lost child has come to be. To raise spare change, Isa cuts photos from dog-eared magazines and hawks them as greeting cards. She sweet-talks strangers, takes warmth where she can find it, and keeps her eyes open. She has the survival instincts of a stray cat and -- even dwarfed by her backpack -- the same feline grace.
This time she has landed, it turns out, in Lille, an industrial city in the north of France. You won't find it on the tourist maps, but it is exactly the right locale for Zonca's bleak meditations on loneliness, friendship, and powerlessness. Lille sustained grave damage in both world wars, and the city filmmaker Zonca and cinematographer Agnes Godard show us is gray and glum, a pile of anonymous postwar concrete that seems to have lost its soul. Isa, portrayed here by a saucer-eyed wonder named Elodie Bouchez, is, despite her street smarts, in danger of suffering the same fate. Rootless and unfocused, she looks to be one lost job short of oblivion.
In Lille Isa winds up in a mind-numbing dress factory, faced with a sewing machine she doesn't understand and an irritable supervisor. But there she makes a friend. Marie (Natacha Regnier) is as anxiety-ridden as Isa is tranquil, as hostile as Isa is practical. Marie, too, has lost her family and her way and finds herself on the ragged edge. But her brittleness contrasts sharply with Isa's almost fatalistic optimism. Marie has lucked into a bargain, though: She's housesitting an apartment the owners of which, a mother and daughter, have both been badly injured in an auto accident and are lying unconscious in a hospital. Ever the opportunist, Isa quickly becomes Marie's roommate.
Thus does Zonca, who at age 41 makes his feature film debut with Angels, set the stage for a resolutely unsentimental study of two young women trying to deal with poverty and anomie. In the cold streets of Lille, Isa and Marie playfully accost businessmen; Isa tries to talk their way into a rock concert; eventually they take up with a pair of nightclub bouncers (Jo Prestia and Patrick Mercado) who turn out to be pretty decent guys underneath their gruff exteriors. Isa and Marie audition, none too enthusiastically, for jobs as waitresses gotten up as celebrities. The irony is stinging: In real life they are invisible, anonymous figures in a cold landscape.
Eventually the paths of these two distressed souls must diverge. While embittered Marie grasps at the illusion that she will find happiness with a feckless rich boy (Gregoire Colin) who owns a local nightclub and has taken sexual advantage of her, Isa becomes ever more concerned with the girl whose place she took at the apartment -- the girl in the coma. First she finds the stricken Sandrine's diary, full of adolescent yearning and uncertainty, and is moved by its tender secrets. Isa even composes new entries of her own, as if to keep Sandrine's spirit alive. "You've been in the hospital one month," she writes in a looping schoolgirl's hand. "My name is Isabelle. I live in your flat."
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That's not enough, of course. Isa begins visiting the unconscious Sandrine, and her sympathy for the bandaged stranger curled into a ball evolves into uneasy recognition.
"She could stay like that and grow old on her bed," Isa tells the oblivious Marie, her voice edged with wonder and terror. Zonca never puts too fine a point on it, but Isa's and Marie's lives are also in danger of slipping into the long night.
Compared to most American movies about teen angst or postadolescent confusion -- Larry Clark's Kids, say, or that spate of isn't-young-love-difficult pictures -- The Dreamlife of Angels is curiously quiet and relentlessly contemplative. There are raucous party scenes but not a lot of empty chatter. Heart-wrenching emotion abounds. The two young actresses are so natural that you sometimes feel as though a TV camera has suddenly invaded real life, and Angels' third major character -- the city of Lille itself -- plays its role perfectly: It's a graveyard for dreams.
The Dreamlife of Angels.
Directed by Erick Zonca. Screenplay by Zonca and Roger Bohbot. Starring Elodie Bouchez, Natacha Regnier, and Gregoire Colin.