Isa and Marie are no angels – they’re just two working-class young women who meet at their job as sewing machine operators in a sort of genteel sweatshop in the French city of Lille. Isa (Elodie Bouchez) seems to be the one to worry about – a gawky waif we first see on the street, all her possessions in a knapsack, trying to raise some spare change by peddling little picture cards she’s made by pasting magazine clippings onto pieces of colored cardboard. It’s one of her potential customers who offers her a job in sewing machine hell, a real job he informs her, not this sad little homemade postcard scam.
Marie (Natacha Régnier), on the other hand, seems to have it more together, a far cry from Isa both in physical appearance and demeanor. A cool blonde to Isa’s tomboyish brunette, she’s productively proficient at work while Isa wrestles clumsily with her unyielding machine. When Isa is fired after her first day, Marie offers her a place to stay, demonstrating that opposites do attract, or at least engender mutual curiosity.
But our first impressions are deceiving, and one of the impressive things about this feature debut from writer-director Erick Zonca is that nothing happens as expected. Marie’s self-possessed persona turns out to be a willful carapace shielding a soft center of anger and need. We catch glimpses behind the facade early on, but it only really begins to crumble when she becomes involved with the handsome, rich and casually sadistic Chriss (Grégoire Colin, the Boni of Nénette et Boni and excellent here as the villain of the piece).
Meanwhile, we begin to see Isa’s hapless pluckiness as a sign of genuine strength, of a perseverance that will get her through a difficult life. We see also that Isa can connect to the people around her in a way that Marie simply can’t – an ability that will save her as sure as it will destroy Marie.
Zonca’s title for his film may seem to be ironic, but by the end of this intelligent and painfully humane tale it makes perfect sense – this being, in part, the story of someone who could no longer dream and so came crashing down to earth.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].