1,000 Times Good Night opens with a veiled Juliette Binoche, playing war photographer Rebecca, somewhere in the Middle East, taking pictures of a woman being fitted with a bomb underneath her burqa. Rebecca moves about the room as if invisible, taking as many shots as she can, like this was a Vogue shoot with well-paid professionals posing at the request of the photographer’s whim. While Rebecca clicks, the suicide-bomber-to-be prays, overpowered by the ecstasy Lacan famously recognized in the face of Gian Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa sculpture—a particularly blinding and illogical devotion. If the bomber is overcome by her mission, so is Rebecca, as she allows no possible ethical stance to stop her from capturing the makings of a terrorist act.
The fact that she’s been granted such unlimited access isn’t just bewildering, but uncomfortable, as she gets inside the van that will take the woman to complete the suicide mission and only asks to get off when it becomes clear that detonation is imminent. When the bomb finally does go off, Rebecca gets hurt and passes out, but not before taking a few more clicks of the destruction. Upon her return to Ireland, she finds her rugged model-esque husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has had enough of staying home with their young daughters while Rebecca risks her survival and that of her family to explore war zones.
It’s difficult to swallow the premise of yet another tale of a heroic white Westerner with good intentions trying to give hope to Middle-Eastern misery. That region is once again a mere plot device, a condiment to spice up a story that has nothing to do with “that place,” as Marcus puts it. Director Erik Poppe, a former war photographer himself, is more interested in telling the story of a crumbling marriage unable to withstand a mother’s fearlessness. While 1,000 Times Good Night looks to the lethal despair of the foreign other as a kind of compass, it focuses on the slow death of a family structure tarnished by a mother driven toward a world that isn’t her own. Poppe has more to say about Irish culture than any of the thorny issues the film exploits, and that a filmmaker literate in Orientalism might have reconsidered. He has a keen eye for Irishmen’s tendency to disavow personal suffering and feign social harmony at all costs, even if his perceptiveness gets cheapened by an insistence on epic music to highlight important moments in the film.
Rebecca keeps passing out after having been almost blown up by a bomb, but she keeps claiming all is grand. Her daughter too claims everything is okay while the resentment she nurtures for her mother’s absence rots inside her: “I hope it was worth it, the picture.” The relationship between mother and daughter is so uncomfortable, their emotions so unsayable, it’s as though they’ve just met. “Why did you start taking pictures of war?” the teenager asks her mom when they go to Kenya together so the young girl can work on her “African project.” They’re both symptomatically separated by individual anti-insect netting and only touch each other when it’s time to extend their arms beyond their nets for an insipid good night. Rebecca’s response comes in the shape of a lecture. We hear a speech about multinational corporations and mining companies raping nations for natural resource money. Perhaps in the way her own camera lens might rape her subjects and leave them for dead as she returns to Europe with a memory card full of publishable material.