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.