Touched by an Angel
What do I like best in this story? The air currents. Zonca films all this with such immediacy--and his two astonishing actresses perform in it with such self-abandonment--that you can smell the cigarettes and unchanged sheets in their apartment, and catch the chill of the breezes that ripple through Lille's streets. There's a sense of space--real, open space--in every scene. Maybe that's why Isa and Marie, though so unalterable in character, never seem predictable as they develop throughout the film. They have room to unfold.
They even have room for silliness. In one inspired sequence, Zonca sends the two friends to search for jobs at a new theme bar called The Hollywood. The waitresses there will impersonate American film stars, so Isa and Marie can't simply apply for work; they have to audition. Of course, the scene is a gift to the actresses: Bouchez and Régnier get to perform as Isa and Marie performing as Madonna and Lauren Bacall. But even within this diversion, fresh revelations come whistling through the picture. Asked to demonstrate how their characters would "act," Bouchez and Régnier push themselves to the point of caricature. They show us an irrepressible, outgoing Isa, who bounces nuttily onstage next to a withdrawn, narcissistic Marie, who can scarcely bring herself to look up and speak. And Zonca, as usual, lets the actresses work. He keeps the camera back just far enough so that he doesn't crowd them; he lets the take continue just long enough so that he doesn't force anything. Moments of pure artifice don't get more natural than this.
There is, toward the end, another moment, brief and unforgettable, when the film's sense of open air becomes awful. Of course: Isa and Marie can't float forever in their fantasies of other lives. But that's a measure of the integrity of The Dreamlife of Angels. While the characters are blowing around loose, the ground remains at their feet. Anyone who's been on the scuffle at 19 or 20 will recall that feeling, with a mingled smile and shudder.
And for Erick Zonca, The Dreamlife of Angels must be such a recollection. Although the picture seems absolutely contemporary, Zonca is in his early 40s. Surely his own wandering years, or those of people he knew, have figured into the atmosphere. You might even say that his self-projection into Isa and Marie is the film's ultimate case of living through others. In The Dreamlife of Angels, a middle-aged man fantasizes himself into two young women. That he does so almost invisibly, with the ease of breathing, is part of what makes his film a revelation.
What's revealed is that impossible thing, the truth. Reviewers ought to tremble when they write the word; filmmakers themselves don't dare mention it. In fact, I have before me an interview with Zonca in which he claims to want to make "tragic, violent, moving stories that have nothing to do with real life." Tragic, violent, moving--all right. But "nothing to do with real life"? That's the one lie he's told so far.
Screening Schedule: If you've got a free Saturday afternoon in March or April and are in the neighborhood, drop by the Brooklyn Museum of Art for the series East Side Stories: Coming of Age Behind the Wall. You'll have your pick of seven films, made between 1989 and 1997, all of them about being young in the Eastern bloc, both before and after Communism. Full information on the series (which runs March 6 through April 17) may be had by phoning (718) 638-5000, ext. 230.
And even though this part of it is unofficial, take it from me: You'll score extra points for coolness if you show up carrying a copy of The Red Atlantis (Temple), J. Hoberman's new book about Communist culture in a post-Communist world.