At only 67 minutes long, Sébastien Betbeder’s captivating genre mash-up Nights with Théodore (Je suis une ville endormie) could be seen as skimping on the drama. However, it turns out that that is in fact the perfect length, and perhaps more filmmakers could take a lesson or two when it comes to the old-fashioned way of thinking that length equals importance and worth. It is certainly a way of thinking that has taken hold amongst Hollywood with Oscar-winners and box office hit comedies alike stretching their rather innocuous storylines to absurd lengths, diluting their product in the process. The short running time is only one of the strengths of Betbeder’s film, but perhaps one of the most noteworthy in a festival scenario. It certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome and that is something to be thankful for.
Beginning with a documentary sequence — or is it? — that details the history of the (very real) Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris’ 19th arrondissement and the sinister mythology that has produced an urban legend status. Much like Central Park in New York City, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont was built essentially from the ground up, entirely landscaped to create a paradise away from Paris for locals ladies in petticoats and gentlemen in top hats and tails. However, below its elegantly sculptured slopes, shimmering ponds, towering bridges, and flowering gardens with hanging trees and paddocks of grassis (supposedly) a series of tunnels that have a mysterious power over certain individuals. Whether any of this is true or not is up to the viewer to decide, and maybe a quick trip to Wikipedia post credits, but this opening stretch allows for the film’s own mysterious power to take hold as it lures in viewers with its disturbing calmness and chilly myth-making. It appears to hide an almost insidious nature that is captivating and begins the film on a truly unique note.
It’s from here where the story proper takes hold, jumping from the moody atmospherics of its prologue to a techno soundtrack with drunken twentysomethings in a Parisian loft. It’s here that Théodore and Anna meet, striking an immediate rapport. He’s clearly a strikingly handsome man with his wild, wavy dark hair and a scruffy beard. She looks more demure with a hint of quirk. Upon leaving the party they take an after-hours detour through the Buttes-Chaumont that results in the sort of impromptu, uncomfortable sexual liaison that party-going twentysomethings may find themselves in when they least expect it. For Théodore the night also brings an indescribably happening that begins to alter his everyday being.
Almost immediately upon leaving the park he begins to have trouble breathing, and before long is using an un-prescribed oxygen tank to sleep. The park, however, has a lure for him and the two begin to visit it every night they’re together. They discover an old pavilion where they sleep after imaginary games where they play count and countess amongst the classic furniture and candle-lit ambiance. They discover a homeless man who’s living there, and one night when visiting the park alone — much to Anna’s surprise and chagrin since it was supposed to be “our place” — Théodore finds himself stalking a small group of people that have also made their way into the park late at night in what appears to be a cult-like ritual of moon worship.
It’s at this stage that Betbeder swerves again from the typical path. The film switches back into documentary mode — or is it? — as well as adding in heretofore unheard narration from Anna, and integrates genres like thriller and even a slight touch of horror. I greatly admired how this remains a constant unknown quality throughout. There’s a genuine sense of not knowing where it will go next. If it’s not a documentary, then it’s a romance, then it’s a deeply discomforting thriller, then it’s a straightforward drama. It’s a fascinating experiment in a way, and I found its inventive subversion of traditional narrative and structure to be utterly beguiling. I am genuinely unsure if I have seen a French film quite like this. I’m unsure if I have seen any film like this and I cherish that feeling in a darkened theatre with no concept of what ideas will be thrown at me next.
In the lead roles of Théodore and Anna, Pio Marmaï and Agathe Bonitzer are marvellous and make their love affair believable as the film takes them on this wild ride that sees them “give up our daily existence”. Denis Gaubert’s cinematography is divine, utilising the darkness of the park in ways that highlights the romance as well as the inherent spookiness. I particularly enjoyed Julie Dupré’s editing, finding friskiness in the slow-hum rhythms of the film that may have gone otherwise unnoticed.
It’s worth noting that in a line-up of film choices that were largely about the long, slow trail to the unknown, Nights with Théodore was by far the most energetic and bold. Like many of the other films in competition at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, Nights with Théodore ends on a note of ambiguity with the fate of its central character less certain that some audiences may like. Competition titles like Yi-Kwan Kang’s Juvenile Offender, Nicolas Wackerbarth’s Everyday Objects (my personal second favourite of the festival), Miguel Ángel Jiménez Colmenar’s Chaika, and Marcelo Lordello’s They’ll Come Back amongst others all dealt with this theme of characters in the abyss, but it was Betbeder’s that invigorated me the most. Like its characters are rejuvenated by the park’s mystical aura, I do was rejuvenated by the film. It had a magic to it that captivated me and made me want to see more. I hope I do from Betbeder because his voice is too original to see fall into its own uncertain abyss.
Edited by Vincent Musetto
© FIPRESCI 2013