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In the French "Dreamlife of Angels," life and love bedevil two young women.

Simple Truths

The much-acclaimed and much-awarded "The Dreamlife of Angels" is something of a cinematic anomaly. The small pleasures of this edgy contemporary buddy picture come from its essential simplicity rather than from the plot or dialogue. You'll find yourself absorbed in the movie, but more for what it isn't than what it is.

On the surface, "Dreamlife" is a tale of two young women whose unlikely friendship grows from necessity. Dark-haired Isa (Elodie Bouchez) is a free spirit who wanders through life on the streets with a smile on her face. Warmhearted and genuine, Isa is a pragmatist with a big heart. If she needs a place to stay, she finds one. If she needs money for food, she snips pictures from library magazines and pastes them on construction paper to sell as cards. Resourceful yet unhardened by the gritty reality of her existence, Isa takes everything at face value, without question.

Her opposite is the frosty blond Marie (Natacha Régnier) who trusts no one. Although she is emotionally cloistered, Marie has a place to go, a family on which to call for support and money, should she choose to ask for it. She chooses not to. When she befriends Isa at the garment factory where the two are working, we're not sure why. We're even less sure when the two become almost inseparable. We sit quietly watching as the two share tales of their childhood as well as their hopes and dreams. The twentysomething women also cavort and flirt, getting into trouble when they forget who and what they are.

However, like all quick-burning flames, their friendship soon dies out, leaving behind a grain of bitterness that grows into an emotional wall between them. In essence, "Dreamlife" unreels like a postmortem of that relationship, a mesmerizing chronicle of it from beginning to end.

In his first feature, director and co-writer Erick Zonca displays a deft but unobtrusive hand. In spite of a few pacing problems, his "Dreamlife" never fails to keep us enthralled. From the first scene, we feel connected to Zonca and his characters. In truth, he easily maintains that tenuous illusion that what we are seeing is spontaneous and real, not plotted and rehearsed. Part of the credit for that also goes to the actresses, who shared Best Actress honors at the '98 Cannes Film Festival.

Bouchez's gamin looks and face-splitting smile are perfect for the openhearted and equally openminded Isa. She makes her character sweetly honorable without ever resorting to overblown sentiment or feigned emotions. Zonca could not have found a better actress than Bouchez to convey Isa's paradoxical morals. Although Bouchez's Isa feels nary a twinge about moving into the apartment Marie is house-sitting while the occupants recuperate in the hospital after an accident, her innate sense of right and wrong sends her to visit the injured mother and daughter.

Régnier's Marie would never think of doing that. Hurt or be hurt is Marie's mantra, and in between those hurts, take as much as you can from anyone weaker than you. Without losing Marie's edginess, Régnier gives her a touching vulnerability. Without ever being told why, we know Marie is one of the life's walking wounded. Régnier softens Marie subtly, especially when she begins to enjoy having Isa as a best friend. But things quickly fall apart when the wrong man enters Marie's life.

"The Dreamlife of Angels" is, of course, an ironic title. There's nothing heavenly about the lives or dire emotional and financial straits of Isa and Marie. And neither comes close to being angelic in her actions. Even their female bonding doesn't really seem to matter. Despite the latter, Zonca and his actresses keep us absorbed for nearly two hours. The secret is that the three have crafted a pair of individuals so genuine that we relate to them on a personal basis. When was the last time that happened in a movie? Watching "The Dreamlife of Angels" is like eavesdropping, except that what we overhear and see takes an emotional

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