Early in Philippe Grandrieux’s Malgré la Nuit, Lenz (Kristian Marr) encounters a friend (Lola Norda) in a dark, abstract space illuminated only by a faint copper-toned light as smoke billows around them. They call each other out in diaphanous whispers enhanced by the absence of any diegetic noise, until their hands touch. She asks him what he’s doing back in Paris, to which he plaintively responds, “I’m searching for Madeleine,” crystallizing the film’s axis of conflict: the regaining of a lost love. It’s an unusual start coming from a filmmaker who routinely eschews anything that so much as resembles plot markers or sentimentality. Then again, no one accustomed to Grandrieux’s penchant for disruption should be too surprised by this.
Since his startling debut feature, Sombre, Grandrieux has become one of cinema’s most audacious chroniclers of society’s underbelly, maybe even its best articulator of heightened sensations; despair and ecstasy erupt from the fabric of his films with a blistering, almost physical intensity. While Grandrieux’s fourth fiction feature continues his usual investigation into the limits of experience and range of cinematic possibilities, there’s also a strong willingness here to work along a more traditional narrative scheme. Not that Grandrieux has totally softened up. Malgré la Nuit still plays out like a sordid nightmare straight out of Georges Bataille’s imagination.
The world here is full in pimps, prostitutes, strippers, straight-up thugs, and peddlers of snuff films. Lenz has reason to believe that Madeleine is under their charge, and like Orpheus, he descends into Hades to bring her back up to the surface. But just as he heads out on his mission, Lenz stumbles upon Hélene (Ariane Labed), a married nurse fast asleep on the subway. Enthralled by her beauty, he can’t look away—and then, without explanation, the scene cuts to a nondescript motel room, where the two proceed to make love with fraught intensity. After they finish, he tells her, in English, “When I look into your eyes, suddenly, I knew everything,” before then whispering in French, “Don’t scorn love. Promise me that you will never scorn my love.”
One doesn’t expect such tender, almost mawkish declarations of love from Grandrieux’s characters. And yet, the delicacy of the language is of a piece with the filmmaker’s general preoccupation with the fragility of the human psyche. “Promise me the same thing,” Hélene replies back to Lenz. “It’s all I’ve got.” Later, we find out that Hélene is sorting through her own emotional baggage: the untimely death of her infant son. As both Lenz and Hélene delve deeper into their own vertiginous inner experience, they recognize that they’ll need to rely on each other, and their bodies, to stave off complete insanity.
If Malgré la Nuit introduces a new wrinkle in Grandrieux’s thematic considerations, it does so quietly. For the most part, the film is vintage Grandrieux, which is to say, there are moments that will make one want to turn away. As in his earlier works, establishing shots are few and far between and tightly framed (and dimly lit) close-ups are abundant—all the better to maximize Grandrieux’s focus on the bodies and faces of his actors, the main vehicle by which we come to understand the characters’ torments.
With his eyes bulging out their sockets and his forehead perpetually glistening with sweat, Lenz gives the film its sense of gnawing panic. But it’s Hélene’s ambiguous facial expressions that better articulate the film’s murky worldview. Hélene attempts to overcome her grief in unpredictable and contradictory ways. One moment she shares, amid giggles, a soapy kiss with Lenz inside a bathtub; in another, she follows a sadomasochistic sex ring deep into a forest, strips off her clothes, and participates in her own willful denigration. The violence of these rituals escalates to the point that it leaves both Lenz and Hélene lying ruined in the dark woods. Death, however, doesn’t have the final word. That the film ends with some semblance of redemption for its downcast protagonist suggests that, for Grandrieux, nihilism is no longer a suitable answer to his cinematic concerns.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 17—24.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man