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.