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This tender French drama netted the Best Actress prize at Cannes for its two leads

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Richard Gere playing a desperate derelict in Time Out Of Mind, and the excellent Heaven Knows What new to Blu-ray, we look back at other films about homelessness.

The Dreamlife Of Angels (1998)

In 2008, French director Erick Zonca captured a significant amount of attention with his raging Julia, in which Tilda Swinton gives a huge, swinging-for-the-fences performance as an alcoholic wrapped up in a kidnapping plot. (Swinton, a reportedly light drinker, based several of her gestures—including ones as minute as “running her tongue round her dry mouth”—on Zonca, who came to the production with a history of alcoholism.) Zonca’s debut feature, The Dreamlife Of Angels, deals with nothing less than the grim day-to-day grind of two aimless French girls who can’t hold down a job. Nevertheless, it possesses a lighter, gentler touch; Zonca’s closeness to the characters lulls you into the rhythms of their daily living. For Isa (Élodie Bouchez, a scar slashing through her right eyebrow), that reality consists of a hefty rucksack (like the one Reese Witherspoon carries in Wild), a quick-cash scheme for the downtime spent in-between odd jobs (she makes scrapbooks from magazine photos), and a perpetual search for the next available couch or bed. The first image of Isa—a Dardennes-like following shot—shows her wandering alone through foggy streets, her feet scratching against the concrete.


Early in the movie, a stranger offers Isa work in a sewing factory in Lille. Once there, she makes fast friends with Marie (Natacha Régnier), who, owing to complicated circumstances, turns out to have an open sofa. After Isa gets fired from the factory, the two become closer, getting drunk together and forming a congenial flirtation with a pair of stocky, motorcycle-riding bouncers. But as Marie’s pursuit of a second relationship—a purely physical one with a rich club-owner (Claire Denis regular Grégoire Colin)—becomes disastrously unhealthy, the movie turns into an increasingly interesting study in contrasting personalities.

Zonca and DP Agnès Godard (also a Denis favorite) are expert at framing conversations to elucidate the distinctive, psychologically revealing body language of Bouchez and Régnier (who shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes). During Isa and Marie’s introductory scene, in which the two of them share a joint in the middle of a shift break at work, it’s only a matter of seconds before the characters’ telling quirks are made visually clear: Where Isa strikes an animated disposition (with her big eyes and teeth, she at times appears ripped from the pages of a comic), Marie skews inward, cloistered inside her black leather jacket and reacting to each question with a guarded glance. It’s this kind of tender, soft-spoken emotional intuition that distinguishes Dreamlife from other exercises in cinematic realism.

Availability: The Dreamlife Of Angels is available on DVD from Amazon and possibly your local video store/library.

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