Romantic idealism and environmental psychology become enmeshed, and indistinguishable, in the intimate Nights with Theodore. Sébastien Betbeder’s Paris-set tale opens with a kaleidoscopic observation of the nooks and crannies of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, layered with a pleasant, Wikipedia-esque voiceover introduction that summarizes its historical and mythological elements. It’s a sublime device of immersion, establishing the uniquely hilly park and its unique attributes—the grotto, “suicide bridge,” storied underground caverns, the Belvedere de Sybil—that evoke a voyeuristic thrill and suitably set the tree-filled stage.
A quick cut juxtaposes the lush landscape shots with an urban Parisian house party where scruffy Theodore (Pio Marmaï) awkwardly hides in the corner; he’s approached by a twiggy redhead, Anna (Agathe Bonitzer), and, despite his hesitation, they begin to dance. They leave the party together and exchange very brief life stories: She’s an art history student and he works in “corrections” for magazines and book publishers. Amid their after-hours stroll through Paris’s 19th arrondissement, Theodore impulsively jumps the fence at Buttes Chaumont and Anna follows. They find a leaf-draped tree to create their own romantic canopy and consummate their curious connection.
Their magnetism is ineffable; they share more intense looks than conversations. Hung over, they awake under the same tree in the park and wander, observing families, lively picnics, and people practicing Tai Chi before concluding their time together by exchanging numbers at the nearest Metro stop. Betbeder maintains a bit of mysticism about the couple and the way the park informs their behaviors even when they’re outside of it. Following their first night of googly-eyed intrigue and lovemaking, Theodore suffers light-headedness, leading the audience to wonder if he gains his life force from his rendezvouses within the park or if he’s just an asthmatic.
Without a day having elapsed, Theodore and Anna decide to meet up again, this time discovering an abandoned pavilion with dusty furniture that they use to create their own love nest. This is the impetus for multiple consecutive days spent together in the park, and nights in the pavilion, complete with signifiers of love such as champagne and candles. They effectively give up on their daily existence for their nightly stays in this oasis among urbanity; Anna can’t even stay awake during the day as she rides the subway. “I was happy to spend nights there with him,” she plainly states. “That’s all.” The concept of a park creating an isolated fairytale wonderland for youthful romance is as enchanting yet narrow as the lovers’ connection to each other, but there are pleasures to be found within the short but sweet 67-minute feature. Betbeder tampers with the form, littering the story with archival footage and a brief segment with a talking-head psychologist who recounts an anecdote about a man who suffered from depression when he moved out of Paris and was deprived of his daily walk through the Buttes Chaumont.
Betbeder’s sensibility isn’t unlike typical modern French films, and he allows the tone to be driven by the throbbing indie-rock soundtrack, which includes the Antlers, Beach House, and That Summer; more often than not, Betbeder relies on the music more than the progressively uninspired visuals. There are sinister chords amid the film’s generally jubilant proceedings, which hint at a pernicious spirit brewing within the park and the couple’s nascent relationship. External forces mercurially chip away at their insular bliss: a sister’s disapproval, the presence of others in the park, and times Theodore spends in the park when Anna isn’t present. At one catalytic moment, Anna sneaks off to use the park as her restroom and discovers another man. She returns to Theodore in the pavilion and announces the startling-to-her, and obvious to the audience, revelation: “We are not alone.” Without becoming gruesome, the park’s special spark fades, and Berbeder indulges in odd, unsuccessfully atonal shifts in narrative—including mysterious inhabitants, such as visiting cultish mystics and a multilingual writer who occupies the grotto—without the finesse exhibited in the earlier acts. Theodore and Anna must surrender to their naïve personal possession of such a public place; Anna observes that Theodore’s temperament changes: “He became gloomy, as if knowing the carefree days couldn’t last.” By the end, the audience feels forlorn for the good ole days just as much as the couple at the film’s core.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 18—28.