It’s characteristic of Erick Zonca’s extraordinary first feature, The Dreamlife of Angels, that we never learn how Isa got that scar across her right eyebrow. It’s just there: a fragment of personal history, borne in the flesh by someone who doesn’t think much about her past.
Barely into her 20s, Isa clomps onto the screen sporting a brush haircut that was surely self-administered and wearing the motley layers of a wanderer. Her clothes, like her eyebrow, must have a history (or histories–these wrappings may have belonged to three or four different people before Isa put them on), but she carries her outfit comfortably, as if she weren’t living in it as a transient.
We soon learn that Isa has traveled to the northeast of France in much the same spirit. She’s arrived expecting to stay with a friend. But she can’t have kept in touch with him; he’s long since moved on from the trailer where he slept. The neighbors have no forwarding address; in fact–no surprise–they scarcely know his name. But Isa doesn’t worry, despite this transition from borrowed shelter to none. Having made her way to the provincial capital of Lille, bundled up against the snow, she now simply camps out.
By now, only five minutes have passed in The Dreamlife of Angels. Already we know that this dark young woman, with her oval face and ripely assertive mouth, is as rootless as a person can be. And yet, miraculously, she’s fully a person. Isa (Elodie Bouchez) comes onto the screen intact–as complete as if the filmmakers had found her, instead of making her up.
The Dreamlife of Angels is the story of one season of Isa’s vagabondage and of the lives she inhabits while slowly passing through Lille. Spending time in a city that’s not her own, squatting in the apartment of someone she’s never met, Isa adds her plenitude to two other characters, who in their different ways give her a void to fill. One of them, a teenager named Sandrine, lies in the hospital in a coma, the victim of a car wreck. Isa not only reads the diary Sandrine has left behind but also inserts herself into it, as if carrying forward the girl’s interrupted life. The other character, Marie (Natacha Régnier), can still walk, talk, smoke cigarettes and swill wine, yet in her own way, she turns out to be as present-but-absent as Sandrine.
At first, though, Marie seems to be the assertive and capable one, compared with Isa. The two meet at a small factory, where Isa has found a minimum-wage job sewing the sleeves for blouses–a job she loses as quickly as it was found, since she stitches her whole first batch inside out. But before getting the boot, Isa has experiences that are denied to most characters in movies today. She performs manual labor, receiving an apprenticeship whose roughness will be recognized by anyone who’s done the same. She falls in with the other women, who share their lunches with her and otherwise offer the brusque yet easy welcome that’s common on shop floors, though unknown amid the computerized cubicles you usually see onscreen. Most important, Isa retreats into the refuge of working women, the toilet, where she has her first encounter with Marie.