AFI Fest 2016: Malgre la nuit, by Scott Nye
There’s been some discussion over the past several years about the relative value of miserablism in cinema, specifically art-house cinema. And there’s probably something to the notion that some filmmakers use horrifying scenarios lazily, not really considering the implications of unrelenting violence and misery but simply using their presence to suggest depth or importance. Of course, the other side of this is that Donald Trump was elected president days before I saw Malgré la nuit, and sometimes the world does feel as hopeless as that which is depicted here. Sometimes, a deep-dive into the world of snuff pornography through the lens of whispered conversations and desperate cries feels about right. Doubly so when it’s as masterfully, breathtakingly executed as Philippe Grandrieux achieves here.
Not that I expected many are going to wander in off the street into a two-and-a-half-hour film about snuff pornography, but, hey, there’s your fair warning. The reason we dive into this world – a man thinks his ex-girlfriend has been sucked into the industry – is almost meaningless, especially as it doesn’t come up until well over a third of the way into the film. Much of the lead-up seems to crisscross between the past and present, as Lenz (Kristian Marr) recalls his romance with Lena (Roxane Mesquida), sometimes called Madelene, and not to be confused with Hélène (Ariane Labed), with whom he is more recently involved, at least emotionally. That they’re both slim brunette women, and that the cinematography is rather adventurous in terms of straightforwardly depicting what is onscreen, and that the lines between time periods and settings are often quite instructable, makes such distinctions difficult.
I like to think this is partially the point. At least, its effect is spectacular. Employing fades and shadows to obscure specifics, Grandrieux (along with cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné) use the flexibility of digital cameras to gain intimacy with the actors. No angle or position seems off-limits, finding new ways of visualizing sex and grief. One particularly disorienting shot shows Lenz and Lena in the height of happiness, yelling wildly across from the Louvre. The wind is whipping through their hair (and the soundtrack), and the camera is unstable; perhaps we are on a train, or they’re standing through a sunroof? No, the camera drifts down to find them on an apartment balcony. This sort of dislocation is replete throughout the film, as bedrooms seem to transform into forests, forests to basements, basements to purely abstract locales.
One of the more resonant objections to miserablist cinema is its treatment of women – where the genre’s forerunners like Ingmar Bergman or Kenji Mizoguchi emphasized spiritual crises, modern practitioners like Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe put the premium on the body. Most especially the female body. Grandrieux follows that trend here, asking a great deal of Mesquida, perhaps more than any actress should be asked. When you see her totally naked except for a hood over her head screaming in terror, allowing her character to give all she has an as actress, it complicates our relationship to the film, and Grandrieux by extension. Lenz is rightly horrified by what he sees, which in the context of the film is only slightly less “fake” than what we actually see. So his question becomes our question – what kind of sicko puts a woman through this?
The difference may lie in intent. The films Lenz sees are meant for degenerate pleasure, where Grandrieux gives us a fuller picture to clarify their depravity. Not that this difference is wholly different for the woman involved. Mesquida is quite spectacular in the role, and Lena’s suffering, or the degree to which she is even suffering, is something of a mystery. What does a morally-inclined audience do with this? How do we regard the thin separation between what a character goes through and what an actress goes through when so much is dependent on what is done to her body? Even assuming the actress had total agency, we could possibly assume the same of the character, which means the outward trauma Lena experiences may actually take place in total comfort.
Might she in fact have been suffering more while in a relationship with Lenz? He’s the sort of drippy discontented thirtysomething European cinema is littered with (see Cosmos for another example from this year), not half as charming as he suggests nor a quarter as philosophical. That Grandrieux gives him the benefit of the doubt may be his own shortsightedness, or a more complex matter of an indulgence many men allow themselves, that we’re all a little smarter, sexier, and more cultured than we’re thought to be. The ruinous path Lenz charts hardly suggests Grandrieux fully views him to be as romantic a figure as he thinks himself.
So, yes, as though being saddled with a two-and-a-half-hour odyssey through snuff porn wasn’t bad enough, your entry into it is not a particularly sympathetic figure himself. And yes, there were quite a few walk-outs at the AFI Fest screening. But in terms of cinema that ruminates on what an awful, awful, awful place the world can be, this is beautifully accomplished. Besides the cinematography, Grandrieux directs his actors in almost-balletic movement. Marr and Mesquida find ways to explore chart their emotional journey through body language, coming together in harmony or breaking off in tiny ways that suggest a depth of feeling they’re unable to completely voice in the whispered language they speak. The often-silent sound track creates a vacuum where pauses last an eternity and every utterance carries uncommon weight. When you’re looking back on a relationship, every sensation seems heightened, even those which don’t correspond to reality. It doesn’t matter what was real. It felt real. It felt dangerous and exciting. Malgré la nuit is electrifying. What do we do with that?