Days and Nights, inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, unfolds as many American films do, with a couple traveling to a country house where they join various family members and set the stage for the prompt return of the repressed. In his directorial debut, filmmaker Christian Camargo resettles Anton Chekhov’s play to the 1980s, in an obnoxiously dull East Coast where, as one of the characters says, everything is “boring, boring, it’s all so beautifully boring.” The couple in question is histrionic film actress Elizabeth (a superb Allison Janney), and her lover, Peter (Camargo), a filmmaker with a fondness for trains because, as he claims, lovers normally find it inappropriate to speak while in them. But yapping is precisely what Elizabeth does when they take one down to the lake house. Their lack of synchrony is interesting (she’s bitchy and loud; he’s pensive and self-effacing), yet right when we start getting attached to them, they relinquish leading-character status by joining an excessive number of other couples in various degrees of unhappiness.
This could be the telefilm cousin of John Wells’s August: Osage County, as it’s shot much like it, the family home portrayed like a suffocating container of pastel drabness in which humans will only occasionally not hurt one another. Except that in Camargo’s film the reasons for convening so many non-psychoanalyzed kin in one badly lit house are more anodyne than a father’s suicide. This is supposed to be a quiet vacation that goes awry—as it tends to happen whenever cinematic couples sit around a bourgeois dinner table and sip Cabernet. They might embrace the stems of their wine glasses firmly, but the latent drama is still bound to spill over. But who will be the first to say too much? Who will, cruelly, out the cruelty of the other? Moments like these have two masterworks to live up to: Marianne and Johan’s witnessing of the nasty floundering of their best friends’ coupledom mid-dinner in Scenes from a Marriage, and the public revelation of a patriarch’s secret in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration. But in Days and Nights, the drama over dinner comes in small analgesic portions (someone wears somebody’s nightgown without their permission, someone else gets their nose hit by an opening door), the secrets feel canned (someone has a year to live) and the dialogue is too pretty to be believable: “If you find your way out, take me with you.”
The film’s obviousness is broken in one striking scene in the end, when a talk about real estate developers reshaping the area around the country house culminates with Elizabeth saying, “Apparently there’s a boom coming. Then, there’s hope.” It’s an arresting moment because the logic of the sentence doesn’t hold up. She speaks of a real estate boom, but we know the real boom in her life is an emotional one, for which there’s no hope. This turns the character into a fleshly, and either naïve or consciously self-delusional, person. It’s also a remarkable punctuation in an otherwise lifeless narrative approach because the film reflects in its very form, if ever so briefly, the gaucheness of its characters. After Elizabeth’s utterance, there’s a very long silence around the table and a series of close-ups of the faces of each guest. For that moment, the actors’ faces are like a series of Messerschmidt busts. Their slow succession means something much beyond their literality. It’s like a hiccup of authenticity, a sliver of an authorial voice sneaking in on what is otherwise barely a film, but a piece of cinematic politeness.