"The Dreamlife of Angels" may be the feature debut of Erick Zonca -- a 41-year-old Gallic helmer with only three shorts on his resume -- but it is the sort of stirring, assured filmmaking normally associated with seasoned auteurs at the top of their game.

“The Dreamlife of Angels” may be the feature debut of Erick Zonca — a 41-year-old Gallic helmer with only three shorts on his resume — but it is the sort of stirring, assured filmmaking normally associated with seasoned auteurs at the top of their game. A deceptively simple yarn about two young women on the fringes of society in the northern French city of Lille, the pic impresses as Zonca never resorts to anything resembling standard-issue storytelling. Boosted by critical reaction, “Angels” is almost certain to be a hot upscale item in Europe and may even get specialized U.S. distribs dreaming of box office action in North America.

The film has a visceral impact because there’s no pretense here, just full-on realism, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the women’s emotional turmoil. It doesn’t hurt that Elodie Bouchez and newcomer Natacha Regnier deliver wrenching, richly nuanced perfs in the lead roles.

“Dreamlife” concerns two very different women with a common bond: They’re about as alienated from mainstream society as you can be without joining the ranks of the homeless. In an opening that echoes Agnes Varda’s female-hobo pic “Vagabond,” Isa (Bouchez) is out on the road with all her possessions stuffed in a ragged backpack. She straggles from town to town, doing most anything to make a buck — working in a factory, selling hand-made cards on the street.

She stumbles into a gig working at a garment factory, but she’s not particularly adept at assembly-line sewing and is soon fired. A co-worker, Marie (Regnier), reluctantly agrees to let her new pal stay with her. In a rather improbable twist, Marie is apartment-sitting for a mother and daughter who are in the hospital recovering from a horrible car crash, the intertwining of these lives coming into play later.

Isa and Marie are opposites, and one of the film’s strengths is the way Zonca details the awkward, often-explosive interaction between the two. On the lowest rung of society, Isa nevertheless remains stoically optimistic and spunky. Marie, by contrast, is sullen, moody and withdrawn, sometimes downright catatonic.

They meet a couple of greasy rocker-bouncers, Fredo (Jo Prestia) and Charly (Patrick Mercado), and Marie kicks off a kind of half-hearted affair with Charly, a burly bear of a guy. Shortly afterward, she hooks up with Chriss (Gregoire Colin), an arrogant club owner. At first, she is openly hostile to the unsavory character, but his brutality during a rough sexual encounter somehow breaks through the emotional barriers she’s built up.

Zonca only stumbles in the tragic finale, which seems abrupt and heavy-handed. Everything else has a raw intensity that never lets the viewer off the hook. But pic’s not a downbeat offering, thanks in large part to Isa’s vivacious personality.

Perhaps the most striking interludes come courtesy of a subplot involving Isa’s growing obsession with the girl from the apartment who is lying comatose in the hospital. It’s an incredibly poignant moment when she opens the girl’s diary and begins writing new entries about her own life.

Bouchez, best known for her role in Andre Techine’s “Wild Reeds,” is a real force here, with a gritty spark that’s impossible to resist in her turn as Isa. But it’s the Belgian Regnier who proves the revelation here, always a riveting presence even when she’s hardly speaking.

Colin is strong as slimeball bar boss Chriss. He doesn’t skimp on the sleaze, yet conveys an animal magnetism that makes Marie’s attraction to him plausible.

Cinematographer Agnes Godard has shot the pic in classic naturalistic fashion, with much street-level handheld camerawork and tightly focused interiors. The soundtrack goes from nonexistent to minimalist, with docu-like use of real-life street sounds.

The Dreamlife of Angels

French

Production

A Bagheera/Diaphana/France 3 Cinema production, with the participation of Canal Plus, Le Centre National de la Cinematographie, la Region Nord Pas de Calais, la Region Centre, la Fondation GAN and La Procirep. (International sales: Mercure Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Francois Marquis. Directed by Erick Zonca. Screenplay, Zonca, Roger Bohbot.

Crew

Camera (color), Agnes Godard; editor, Yannick Kergoat; music, Yann Thiersen; art director, Jimmy Vansteenkiste; costumes, Francoise Clavel; sound, Jean-Luc Audy; artistic collaboration, Virginie Wagon; casting, Antoine Carrard; associate producer, Michel Saint Jean; assistant director, Hubert Barbin. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 16, 1998. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Isa - Elodie Bouchez Marie - Natacha Regnier Chriss - Gregoire Colin Fredo - Jo Prestia Charly - Patrick Mercado
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