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“All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun,” Jean-Luc Godard famously remarked, but from Jean Seberg in Godard’s own Breathless to Elodie Bouchez in Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, the formula is even simpler: a girl and a street. That’s how Zonca’s feature debut begins, with a handheld camera tailing Isa (Bouchez) as the peripatetic young woman arrives in Lille to stay at the home of a friend who—inevitably—is reported to no longer be in residence. The north of France is oppressively cold and gray, but Isa (short for Isabelle) is a classic cinematic gamine, alive on her feet.

Denied refuge, Isa works the city’s pedestrianized streets and cafes, selling cards she’s improvised with images cut from magazines. (As she demonstrates again later, Isa has a kindergartener’s delight in arts and crafts.) She soon finds work in a garment sweatshop, where she meets Marie (Natacha Régnier), who appears more responsible—if also more sullen—than her new friend. Isa invites herself to spend the night at Marie’s apartment, and the living arrangement proves more permanent than the job. Isa is fired, Marie quits, and the two young women devote themselves to hanging out at the center-city mall, making the middle-class patrons uneasy with their stares and their questions. They stop one guy and mockingly ask him if love can overcome class barriers; it’s an apparently offhand question in a film that never seems calculated, yet it articulates one of The Dreamlife of Angels’ central themes.

After a few rounds of mutual derision with two nightclub and rock-concert bouncers who—like Isa—are more sensitive than they initially appear, the members of the working-class quartet pair up. Marie sleeps with Charly (Patrick Mercado) while Isa doesn’t sleep with Fredo (Jo Prestia), yet it’s Isa who feels the stronger tie to the two. Rootless as she is, Isa is more capable of connection, as becomes clear when each of the women develops a new relationship exclusive of the other.

After discovering that Marie is house-sitting for a woman and her daughter who were hospitalized after a car crash, Isa begins to investigate the girl’s belongings, ultimately reading her diary. Visiting the hospital, Isa learns that the woman is dead and that her daughter, Sandrine, is in a coma. She becomes Sandrine’s only regular visitor, reading to her from her own diary. Meanwhile, Marie has entered into a fiery, ill-matched sexual relationship with wealthy, imperious Chriss (Grégoire Colin), who owns the nightclub where Charly and Fredo work. This dalliance so obsesses Marie that she fails to read the obvious signs that Chriss doesn’t take it as seriously as she does.

Zonca had Bouchez and Ré#gnier live together while filming—a gambit that paid off when the duo was awarded a joint best-actress prize at Cannes. The empathetic actresses chart the shifting relationship with exceptional subtlety, portraying Isa and Marie’s growing rapport as convincingly as their subsequent estrangement. They gradually reveal the women’s hidden strengths and weaknesses without ever seeming in thrall to a preordained scheme.

There is such a scheme, of course. Zonca and co-scripter Roger Bohbot worked for years to craft this screenplay, and when reduced to its outline—Isa finds her way as Marie loses hers—the story has a classical symmetry. But like such other younger French directors as Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis—whose regular cinematographer, Agnès Godard, deftly shot the film—Zonca takes a documentarylike approach, converging life as it’s lived on the street and in the heart. Thus The Dreamlife of Angels is as much about class as it is about love, and the sweatshop extras (most of them real Lille garment workers) never look like mere local color. The film doesn’t just want to reveal as much of the lives of two women as it can in two hours, it also wants to reveal as much as it can of life.

For some 40 years, Shohei Imamura has been charting those fleshly eruptions that undercut mankind’s attempts to order the universe. (He could be Peter Greenaway’s boisterous Japanese older brother.) Disease is the principal disruptive force in Dr. Akagi, which the 72-year-old director has said will be his last film, but those who’ve followed Imamura’s work will not be shocked to learn that lust comes a close second.

Although many of Imamura’s films are haunted by the ghosts of what the Japanese call the Pacific War, Dr. Akagi is only the third with scenes that actually transpire during the conflict. Not surprisingly, the movie occurs at the director’s favorite psychological location: the breaking point. It’s the summer of 1945 in a fishing village in southern Honshu, and imminent defeat has only made the local military authorities more obstinate. Equally resolute in a more humane way is town physician Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto), whose obsession with an ongoing hepatitis epidemic makes him initially seem a comic figure. The locals call him Dr. Liver when they see him scurrying on his rounds, accompanied by Yosuke Yamashita’s oddly jaunty score, which anticipates the upcoming occupation with energetic American jazz.

Akagi is soon matched with his female counterpart, Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), an almost-reformed young prostitute who in her way is as much a healer as the doctor. Hoping to discourage the town’s lovestruck young accountant from embezzling any more money to pay for Sonoko’s services, the man’s mother urges Akagi to hire the hooker as his nurse. The earthy, impulsive Sonoko takes the job, although she’s sometimes pressed back in her former trade, whether to cater to the kinky photographic studies of the local POW camp commander or to ease the fears of a superstitious woman who’s convinced her son will be at greater risk if he’s still a virgin when he goes to war.

When not on such errands of mercy, Sonoko joins a morphine-addicted surgeon and an escaped Dutch POW in a ragtag research team trying to help Akagi discover the cause of hepatitis. While the physician attempts to do good, however, he fears that his son, an army doctor, is engaged in brutal experimentation on POWs in Manchuria. Closer to Akagi’s village, the emperor’s army is more interested in instructing elderly women on how to kill American invaders with farm implements than in saving the lives of the impoverished local fishermen and their families.

Imamura’s father, to whom the film is dedicated, was a country doctor, but Dr. Akagi is not notably earnest about its title character; if not so foolish as some of his neighbors, Akagi is nonetheless swayed by vanity and self-importance. But then Imamura’s view has always been that irrationality and self-delusion are inseparable from human existence. (The one exception is Black Rain, whose account of post-Hiroshima horrors is uncharacteristically, if understandably, solemn.) To Imamura, a depiction of human society that omitted its sad follies and absurd fantasies would not be human at all.

Adapted by Imamura and Daisuke Tengan from stories by Ango Sakaguchi, Dr. Akagi is not literally autobiographical. Still, it’s certainly a summation of the director’s enduring themes, from the primacy of sex and the hidden power of Japan’s South Seas heritage to the spell of filmmaking itself. Unable to see well through his new microscope, Akagi eventually outfits it with the arc light from the local moviehouse’s broken projector. Illuminated by the light of cinema, Akagi can now observe the bacteria—chaotic and heedless but vital, just like so many Imamura characters. When Sonoko asks about the social structure of microorganisms, the doctor explains that they have none, living only to reproduce.

Having had some time to consider this statement, Sonoko later exclaims, “I’m bacteria!” If this expression of the director’s notion of the female life force is simplistic, it’s not unaffectionate. Eros is messy and perverse in Imamura films, but that’s not such a bad thing. Better to be indiscriminate bacteria than the sort of meticulous creatures who invented militarism, emperor worship, or the A-bomb whose explosion illuminates the suitably outlandish sequence with which Imamura ends his singular career.

About two years ago, no one went to see Citizen Ruth, Alexander Payne’s remarkable satire of abortion-interest-group politics. The buzz is much louder on the director’s new Election, which is the sort of development that ought to tickle his cynical funnybone, since the latter film is not nearly as good. Although it includes some of what can now be called Payne’s trademarks—Omaha, mockery of middle-American pieties, lesbians with a mission—Election lacks the ability to skewer its subjects because it doesn’t have a point.

Transplanted to Payne’s Nebraska hometown from the New Jersey locale of Tom Perrotta’s novel, the movie quickly recalls most of the other high school fables of the last six months or so. Like the protagonist of Rushmore, Tracy Flick is the local champion of extracurricular activities; like the villains of Jawbreaker and She’s All That, Tracy believes she’s entitled to reign over the school, although she wants to be student government president rather than prom queen. Plus, she’s played by Reese Witherspoon, who portrayed a slut and a virgin, respectively, in Pleasantville and Cruel Intentions.

The difference between Election and such predecessors—and it’s an insufficient one—is that Tracy’s nemesis is not another student. The bright-eyed young hustler’s bitterest foe is civics and American history teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick, aka Ferris Bueller), who’s chilled by Tracy’s ambition and resentful that the seemingly prim Tracy ruined one of his friends, a dimwit math teacher whose affair with the student destroyed his career and his marriage.

While Tracy is DOA—dislikable on arrival—Election takes its time revealing that Jim is a creep, too. He’s only doing his bit for high school democracy when he enlists Paul (Chris Klein), a sports star sidelined with a broken leg, to challenge Tracy in the election. This move prompts Paul’s younger sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), to join the race, hoping to punish her brother for stealing her girlfriend. OK, so that’s a distinctive twist, but Tammy’s fuck-the-system stump speech is not quite so novel as Payne imagines. (A friend of mine delivered a similar one in his quest for our high school’s student government presidency, and that was back before anyone had heard of Ferris Bueller.) What really shatters Jim, however, is his own attempt at adultery, a hapless fling (not with a student) that leaves him a wreck on the day of the big plebiscite.

Narrated by the four central characters and overendowed with gimmicky directorial business, Election draws essentially the same conclusion as Citizen Ruth: that politics only serves natural-born politicians. Everyone else loses, whether through a dramatic life upheaval or simply by appearing in a montage set to one of Donovan’s dippiest songs. As for Tracy, let’s just say that Washingtonians will probably be more amused than audiences elsewhere by the film’s last few minutes. CP