From Mourning to Love

in 34th Panorama of European Cinema, Athens

by Ifigenia Kalantzi

Α critical approach to the film My Night (Ma nuit)

My Night (Ma nuit), the directorial debut by renowned French casting director Antoinette Boulat, tells the story of a brief encounter between a boy and a girl in the course of one night. On the birthday of her older sister, who died five years earlier, 18-year-old Marion (Lou Lambros) is determined to hang out with her friends, despite her inconsolable mother’s bad feelings, as she tries to persuade Marion to stay in a strange and sad celebration. Marion meets her friends in the park, where they talk, laugh, flirt, and take photos; wandering around the streets of Paris, they end up at a party where everyone is drunk and dancing to the beat of techno music. Trying to forget her grief, Marion dances with her eyes closed. Feeling disappointed that her best friend left her for a boy, she leaves alone in the night.

Walking the deserted streets in a hurry, she is approached by Alex (Tom Mercier), a young man from the party who has followed her and offers to accompany her with his motorbike. Despite her initial fears and hesitations, Marion is flattered by the unknown and kind young man and lets him walk beside her, on a summer night where anything can happen. The wise and protective Alex takes care of her, even when his motorbike is stolen. Walking in the empty, uncrowded neighborhoods of a dark, unrecognizable Paris at night, without any trace of its former cinematic glamour, the two young protagonists discuss and develop their existential and ecological concerns about an ominous future that “is no longer just a distant buzz,” while daring to envision “a way out of their daily prison,” since “their dream or their freedom, is the feeling of not being afraid.” If freedom is gained by overcoming our fears, then hope blooms with love, especially when “tomorrow is today,” in an optimistic, full-of-promise ending.

The process of mourning, which is at the heart of the film, keeps the protagonist at a distance from the others. Marion is treated as though she is living in a parallel world. Pain gives her strength and sharper vision, conveyed onscreen by a narrow focal point that isolates her from the surroundings. The fewer wide shots are used, the more her loneliness is marked. Focusing on the character of teenage Marion as she tries to face her past to look to the future, Boulat demonstrates an amazing ability to portray a young girl trapped in the grief of her daily life (due to the tragic loss of her sister), and also relating this to a vivid portrait of today’s youth, who want to be unique, original, and different, while expressing deeper doubts for an uncertain future. In approaching faces, the camera follows movements and expressions to become an anthropological tool in a behavioral study of modern youth; in moving away, it captures moments of social tension in the streets of Paris, between immigrants and homeless trying to find shelter under a bridge.

Between realism and documentary, the camera slides from young faces in an unpredictable harsh reality, while Paris at night is portrayed with the same fearless teenager’s intimacy. Alex’s accent reflects his foreign identity, revealing another dimension in the game of fear-of-the-unknown that runs throughout the film, even though the general feeling is more like a dance to the rhythm of wise answers and warm smiles—and also of the kindness of strangers who could be so close to us on a magic night.

Although the concept of an acquaintance formed through walking and wandering in a city during one day or one night can be found in many films with similar themes, such as Before Sunrise (1995) by Richard Linklater, or the single shot in Victoria (2015) by Sebastian Schipper, or even in Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) by Agnès Varda, it is amazing how a trivial love story of a “boy meets girl” situation in Boulat’s film is carried with so much intensity and sincerity.

The cinematic effects of the French New Wave and cinéma-vérité, unsurpassed inspiration for contemporary directors, are still visible even in today’s youthful love stories, and still have the power to capture a timeless story of flirtation between a boy and a girl on a summer night.

Ifigenia Kalantzi
Edited by Robert Horton