Angels and Devils

The Dreamlife of Angels and Carrie offer inverse portraits of single white females

Even in the supposedly enlightened late '90s, bosom buddies continue to get short shrift on screen from suspicious or sentimental male directors. The female friendship genre arguably remains defined by Single White Female's emotional parasitism on one pole and Thelma & Louise's chest-thumping sisterly solidarity on the other. Perhaps that's why French writer-director Erick Zonca's unforgettable film The Dreamlife of Angels radiates such power: Here's a fortysomething man imagining his way into the intimate worlds of two young women with astonishing subtlety and insight.

When Isa (Elodie Bouchez) arrives in wintry Lille only to find her one contact long gone, this determined drifter manages to find work sewing shirtsleeves in a sweatshop, where she discovers a kindred spirit, Marie (Natacha Regnier), sneaking a smoke in the ladies' loo. Although Isa's job lasts only until she sews an entire batch of blouses inside-out, her friendship with Marie takes off and the two soon share cigarettes, laughs, adventure, and an apartment. Men confuse and complicate the picture: Marie becomes involved first with a tender, plump bouncer (Patrick Mercado) and then with his haughty, playboy boss (Gregoire Colin). Meanwhile, Isa finds the diary of the rich straight-A student who once inhabited their apartment but now lies comatose in the hospital, plunging herself into a relationship with the unconscious girl. As Isa and Marie indulge their inchoate fantasies, one of them ultimately falters, while the other drifts on.

How is it that Zonca's own fantasy is at once so reverent yet realistic? For one thing, the first-time feature director had some help from his female friends. Bouchez and Regnier inhabit their roles so fully and inseparably that they shared the Best Actress award at Cannes last year. (In order to better capture the intensity and volatility of the relationship, the two shared a flat during filming.) And by way of intricate hand-held camerawork, veteran cinematographer Agnès Godard enhances the movie's intimate touch, honing in on telling details: a tiny scar that bisects Isa's eyebrow, Marie's lonely eyes, or the faces of dozens of anonymous sweatshop seamstresses.

Such cinéma vérité is an intriguing choice for a film ostensibly devoted to revealing its angels' dreamlife. Ultimately, the title proves enigmatic, since we never know quite what these angels dream of. Their dreams are vast, vague, and unfathomable--symbolized by a trip to a misty beach for Marie, and the blips of brainwaves on a hospital screen for Isa. Alternately, their aspirations are remarkably humble and concrete, involving admission to a rock concert or a leather jacket. Nor are their dreams necessarily healthy, at least not as Hollywood dream weavers would have it. As Isa warns Marie, "You're torturing yourself. And you dream a lot."

What Isa ironically calls "the tiny detail of class" perpetually shapes the friends' desires--and, in the case of Marie, even the content of sexual fantasies. In an inspired take on class and popular cinema, Isa and Marie impersonate their favorite stars--Madonna and Lauren Bacall--in order to get waitressing jobs at a Hollywood theme bar. Call it fantasy in the service of a wage. Ultimately, ethereal Marie pines for escape while the more grounded Isa longs for simple recovery and survival. But Marie's intended escape route--the coiffed club owner--proves a class-based trap. Unlike romantic fantasies like Titanic, where the rich find authenticity and freedom by cavorting with the poor, this angel's dreamboat is a nightmare. He conquers her pride and squashes her rebellious spirit, leaving her reeling in self-loathing and shame. He fucks her and then fucks her over.

As for the dynamics of female fellowship, opposites attract even among angels. Isa is dark, boyish, gregarious, generous, and trusting, while Marie is blond, diffident, guarded, and volatile. Whereas Isa initially appears vulnerable and fragile compared to the aggressive, confident Marie, the two soon flip-flop (not unlike Mike Leigh's Career Girls). By the end of the film, Isa's subtle class and gender solidarity makes perfect sense considering her character. Yet Zonca's resolutely unsentimental take on this friendship prevents any romanticized version of rebellious resistance. Thelma, bid adieu to Louise.

 

Delivering the inverse portrait of the single white female, Carrie remains capable of provoking shudders almost 25 years after its debut (and a good two decades past my own puberty). Moreover, Brian De Palma's 1976 classic of teenage vengeance (screening for a week at Oak Street in a brand-new, archival-quality print) proves even more pointed in the wake of the Colorado high-school massacre--although it bears noting that it's not outcast girls gunning down classmates in real life, but rather the beleaguered adolescent boys who've constituted horror's core audience since Carrie opened.

This time around, I'm less impressed by De Palma's intense depiction of the persecution Carrie (Sissy Spacek) suffers at the hands of her prom-obsessed peers than by the scenes involving her fanatical mother (Piper Laurie), who's hell-bent on "spreading the gospel of God's salvation through Christ's blood." Or is that Carrie's blood? Like Carrie's catty classmates who pelt her with pads and tampons, Mrs. White wants her daughter to "plug it up." As the mother harangues her newly menstruating daughter: "Eve was weak. And the Lord visited Eve with a curse. And the curse was a curse of blood...After the blood come the boys like sniveling dogs, trying to find out where that smell comes from." Both scapegoat and sacrificial lamb, Carrie is as much the victim of unmerciful religious rituals as stifling suburban ones.

But before we go praising De Palma and author Stephen King as feminists, let's remember that it's women terrorizing other women here. The boys (including John Travolta) are just "stupid shits" following the lead--and the orders--of their dominant girlfriends. That Amy Irving's girl-next-door has good intentions matters less than the fact that her concern leads as surely to Carrie's destruction as the tormentors' malicious plot. In Carrie, sisterhood is bloody, too.

 

The Dreamlife of Angels starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre;Carrie starts Friday at Oak Street Cinema.

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