A late bloomer, Erick Zonca directed his first feature at the age of 40. The Dreamlife of Angels went to Cannes last year, where its two young stars, Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Régnier, shared the prize for best actress, jump-starting all three careers.
Set in Lille, a gray, industrial city in northern France, Dreamlife traces the relationship between Marie (Régnier), a tense, unstable factory worker, and Isa (Bouchez), a roving urchin of boundless goodwill who becomes her roommate. Against the harsh backdrop of sweatshops and unskilled, minimum-wage labor, it’s a remarkably tender portrait of the subtle interweaving and painful ruptures of friendship between very young women.
Onscreen, Bouchez is all ragged charm and generosity; in person, the former model and seasoned professional is politely glamorous. Régnier’s Marie fairly bursts with luminous furor, but the young Belgian actress appears quiet and wraithlike, with enormous, dewy blue eyes. She’s quick on the uptake, however. Asked about her character’s less-than-cherubic violence, she counters, “Well, don’t they say that the Devil was once God’s favorite angel?”
Four years ago, at an award ceremony in Paris, Zonca, then the little-known director of three short films, accepted a prize with the words “Elodie Bouchez doesn’t know it, but I’ve written my first feature for her.” Bouchez, who was in the audience, was touched and flattered. But a year later, when she received the script, she hesitated before accepting the role of Isa.
“Marie has crises, things happen to her, she’s extreme, emotional,” Bouchez said, “whereas Isa just hangs around. She seemed so vague and passive. Until the last moment, I didn’t know where I would go with her. But when we began to shoot, she came to me like a revelation— a boyish
little clown, with her huge smile and incredible openness. From that moment on, everything was easy.”
Régnier describes the opposite experience. “Erick had done a pretty wide casting for Marie. But as soon as I read the script, I had this gut feeling that the role was for me. I’m a very reserved person. But I knew I had Marie’s violence in me, and her aloofness, and her small moments of joy. During the shoot, Erick didn’t leave me for a minute. He kept watching me, and wanting me to go further. We often fought, and our constant battling put me in a state of permanent revolt, which corresponds to Marie’s character.”
Zonca studied acting in Paris and New York, where he lived in the late ’70s, working as a dishwasher at Umberto’s Clam House, and, oddly enough, discovered European art film at the Bleecker Street Cinema. “Directing actors is a very strange business,” he admits. “You can’t tell them what to do, or explain the character— they’re as intelligent as you are, and they’ve read the script. But actors need to know that someone is watching, and reflecting back to them their own image.
“I’m very proud of the Cannes prize,” he adds, “because for all my short films, the actors also won awards for interpretation.”
Dreamlife evokes with Zola-esque intensity the life of the female industrial worker, a tradition that has continued with little alteration since the 19th century. To prepare for their roles, Régnier and Bouchez spent time in the sweatshops of Lille, working next to seamstresses who figure in the film as extras.
“Marie refuses this work, she finds that it doesn’t correspond to her,” Zonca explains. “Well, to whom does it correspond? When you see the other women, and you know their stories, you tell yourself, they’ve got to get out of there.”
The actresses shared an apartment during the two months of shooting. “Work was very intense,” Régnier says. “But the evenings were calm. We listened to music. Sometimes we took walks. And there was certainly a lot happening on an unconscious level.”
“We’re very different,” Bouchez says, “and those contrasts, physical as well as temperamental, make the film interesting— the fact that, coming from the same milieu, Isa and Marie’s approach to life is so different, and that each is in her own way lost. It’s rare to find a film with two female characters who are so finely drawn and complex, and who are not in competition.”