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Review: On a Magical Night’s Dalliance with Screwball Humor Is Featherweight

Christophe Honoré deposits all his chips on the comedic premise at the expense of character study and gravitas.

On a Magical Night
Photo: Strand Releasing

Maria (Chiara Mastroianni) and Richard (Benjamin Biolay) are the archetypical Parisian couple in writer-director Christophe Honoré’s On a Magical Night. They have intellectual jobs, live in an ample apartment, own mountains of books, and appear to subsist almost entirely on coffee and cigarettes. But a life of bourgeois harmony isn’t without its threats, and here it comes undone when Richard discovers that Maria, who’s a law professor, was having an affair with one of her students. For Maria, unspoken infidelity is an inherent part of heterosexual coupledom, the very secret of its longevity. That’s her defense, anyway. Richard is blindsided by Maria’s dismissiveness, which somehow leads her, and not him, to sneak out of their home in the middle of the night to rent a room in the hotel across the street in order to inconspicuously observe her husband from afar.

On a Magical Night starts out like a conventionally French comedy of manners about the irreconcilable gap between men and women, and in the key of Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction and Anne Fontaine’s My Worst Nightmare. But Honoré’s latest quickly takes a quixotic turn as various ghostly guests turn up inside Maria’s hotel room. Among these figures from the past is Richard’s younger self (played by Vincent Lacoste), who tries to convince her that she’s in the wrong only to end up having sex with her. Irène (Camille Cottin), Richard’s piano teacher and lover from when he was a teenager until he married Maria, also turns up to speculate how life would have turned out for all of them if Irène had allowed the affair with Richard to go on, as the younger Richard wished, even after his marriage to Maria.

Other ghosts who appear to confront Maria about her supposed recklessness in romantic affairs include, inexplicably, a Charles Aznavour impersonator and, more predictably, her late mother (Marie-Christine Adam), who’s brought the proverbial receipts of Maria’s aversion to monogamy. That is, a list of the names of every guy she ever hooked up with, including one of Maria’s cousins, and all of whom eventually join her in the hotel room for a reckoning.

On a Magical Night, almost theatrical in concept, follows a simple setup: Inside a hotel room, apparitions materialize to slut-shame a woman into crossing the street and make amends with her husband of 20 years. It’s refreshing to see Honoré continue experimenting with fantasy, and here he tries to translate the surreal quality of his scenario into the aesthetics of the film itself. Honoré blankets Paris in whimsically heavy snow and employs an aerial camera that slithers through space from bedroom to living room to kitchen, disrespecting the laws of physics (walls and doors aren’t connected to the ceiling), which suggests the bourgeois home to be so reliant on performance that it might as well be a movie set.

But for the balls-to-the-wall critique of bourgeois coupledom to feel like something beyond a mere aesthetic exercise, the relationship between the couple in question needed to have been more convincing. Honoré gives us no reason to believe we should cheer for Maria to make her way from the overcrowded hotel room back to her apartment, or to root for her to stay in the hotel room and enjoy some sort of ghostly bacchanal. In fact, Maria seems to want the ability to go back and forth between these two worlds, domesticity and short-lived pleasure, but the film doesn’t seem to accept that as a possible, or advisable, outcome for the character.

In Non-Fiction, the comedy is more satisfying because by the time we’re asked to laugh at the characters’ predicaments, their idiosyncrasies have been credibly established as charming to their long-time partners. We believe their anxieties and are invested in them because we can see the pleasure in the scenarios. In contrast, On a Magical Night surrenders to a mostly failed attempt at screwball humor, never building the relationship between Maria and Richard as particularly deserving of compromise, nor the hotel room’s guests as worthy of a second one-night stand. Honoré deposits all his chips on the comedic premise at the expense of character study and gravitas. The result is a little like a gimmick masquerading as plot.

Cast: Chiara Mastroianni, Benjamin Biolay, Vincent Lacoste, Carole Bouquet, Camille Cottin, Harrison Arevalo, Marie-Christine Adam Director: Christophe Honoré Screenwriter: Christophe Honoré Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2019 Buy: Video

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