How to find peace after the loss of a loved one as a teenager still trying to find herself? My Night, the first feature by the French filmmaker Antoinette Boulat that premiered in the new section Orrizonti Extra at the 2021 Venice IFF explores the experience of a major loss in the life of 18-year-old Marion.
Boulat’s movie Ma Nuit (the Czech premiere took place at the 5th ELBE DOCK IFF under the English title My Night) captures a single day and night in the protagonist’s life. It marks the anniversary of her sister’s death, a loss that she and her mother have not yet come to terms with. We never find out the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death; the film focuses solely on the ways in which it has affected Marion’s life.
Marion at night, Marion in the morning
In the opening scenes, we see a conflict between Marion and her mother who invited the late daughter’s friends to remember the anniversary together. Marion objects to the situation, starts protesting and then leaves to meet her own friends. Each woman has a different way of dealing with the loss and it becomes apparent that Marion has nobody to talk to. Her mother transfers her own feelings of grief and pain onto her daughter. It is understandable; after all, she lost her child, which is one of the most difficult life events one can ever encounter. Yet from Marion’s point of view, as a teenager who is not allowed to process the situation, this context is hard to imagine, and so she focuses on her own grief.
The movie takes place on a hot day and night in Paris. After spending some time with her friends, Marion leaves the group and goes out into the night. Empty city streets highlight the sense of loneliness experienced by Marion.
The story continues when Marion meets a young stranger. Alex is an extroverted young man who noticed Marion when she left the party. He seems a little sketchy at first and Marion tries to ignore him, but he manages to persuade her that he means no harm. Alex becomes Marion’s guide and provides her with a sense of stability. Although he is an absolute stranger, Marion finds more connection with him than with her family and friends. Marion is initially guarded but Alex’s generous and adventurous spirit persuades her that the time she wanted to spend on her own would be better spent with somebody who is trying to understand her inner world and experience.
Charming lead Lou Lampros
Lou Lampros is visually magnetic, and it is easy to get carried away by her expressions and gestures. In her first lead role, she manages to convey Marion in all her complex, melancholic fragility. Lou Lampros works as a model and actress and her acting style combines girly softness with feminine confidence. The movie often shows a close-up of her face that is hard to read for any other secondary emotions that might be taking place inside her character. One can clearly detect her sadness, melancholy and the inability to imagine her own future or feel joy. Boulat has said that she had a different idea of what her lead should look like, but that Lampros’s wild and raw energy was so compelling that she simply wanted to make the film with her.
Considering the post-pandemic situation and the war conflict in Ukraine, these emotions and mental states seem to be universal among young people today, which makes the movie accessible even to viewers who might not have experienced the loss of a loved one. In both the screenplay and performance, Marion is well built and it is ideal for viewer observation. She embodies grief that one can feel for different reasons today, whether it be internal or social. Although Boulat probably did not consciously work with this concept, her intimate drama is able to engage a broader range of issues than she might have initially thought.
My Night could be labeled an intimate lyrical portrait. The story does not follow a traditional dramatic structure but instead focuses on the internal processes and mental states of the protagonist whom we see over a limited period of time.
The Seine, one of the symbols of Paris, plays an important role in the movie and can be seen as the metaphor of Marion’s night as well as the metaphor of the famous quote panta rhei. The night is at once unique and elusive. It flows through the picture and changes at each stage of the film. Just as the Seine is different in all of its tributaries, Marion changes with each new environment. And it is not just her, we see that the seasons change as well but that is probably due to production issues and the need to reshoot some of the scenes later; it feels too out of place for it to have been creative intention.
At times, the fluidity of the movie is broken, for example, in the first part of their journey when Marion separates from Alex and meets two men who start harassing her. Alex comes back to help her. This is one of the few scenes in the film that stall the story, not only because of the aggressiveness of the men but also because the scene seems to have no purpose. It only highlights the fact that Alex plays the part of the protector. It makes an overly simplified, self-evident point that merely underscores well-known facts and overexplains the obvious. While it is true that young girls out and about the city at night become a frequent target for harassment or sexual assault, this kind of blatant commentary feels redundant for the overall impact of the movie.
Alex and Marion revisit the situation when Marion explains that Alex saved her life, which may as well be true, but it also feels a little exaggerated considering the way the scene with aggressive men unfolded. It could also point out the way Marion experiences interactions with other people and that she is not equipped to protect herself against external influences and events.
In a scene that follows, Alex tells Marion that she is too serious. Marion objects, “Not serious, just careful,” which poignantly describes the essence of Marion’s character. One might also add that she is reserved, which disconnects her not just from the external world but from her friends as well.
Tom Mercier (who appeared in, for instance, Synonyms by the Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid or in HBO’s series We Are Who We Are by the Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino) lends the character of Alex boyish charm. He makes Alex an amicable young man who is clear about his values and knows what is important in life. He is not lost like Marion, he brings some semblance of stability and connection into her life, as well as an unconventional attitude and original outlook on life. He provides Marion with a sense of safety, which then makes her feel more at ease and spontaneous. The film makes frequent references to the French new wave and Jean-Luc Godard’s early work, especially his 1960s films. It is apparent in scenes that capture carefree moments in the city yet, unlike Godard’s protagonists, Marion has to work quite hard to just be, without having to carefully overthink everything.
After strolling through the city, Marion agrees to take a hit from a joint and finds herself trapped inside her own anxiety. She gets injured and, while it looks like she is alone, Alex is soon back to save her again and take her to hospital. Alex is not calculating in any way and does not expect to be rewarded for his help. The ending implies that Alex will make Marion’s summer different from what she is used to and that she finally managed to find someone who is willing and able to offer her the emotional holding that she needs.
Late directing debut of an A-list casting director
Alhough the movie is a debut, Antoinette Boulat is no newcomer in the film industry. Variety described her as a veteran in the French film industry. Boulat is a well-known casting director who has worked with a number of famous filmmakers, such as Sofia Coppola, Oliver Assayas, Wes Anderson, Leos Carax, Mia Hansen-Løve and Lars von Trier. Her own directing debut comes quite late in her life, but it may even be for the better. She has a lot of empathy toward her characters, and it is evident that she continues the French film tradition of philosophical dialogue.
Boulat used the 1:37:1 format for her movie, which corresponds with her intention to observe the protagonist’s close-up, without wide shots that would capture the environment around them. It provides a slightly different perspective of the city, without the typical crowds of people that usually fill the streets. Nighttime Paris further adds to the atmosphere and My Night is a reference to the city as well, with all of its beauty and dangers.
My Night is mainly a character study, an intimate account of Marion’s mental state and her inability to get out survival mode and fully deal with her life. There is enough space and time (with the running time of 87 minutes) to understand Marion and to immerse oneself in her experience. Rather than providing simple answers, the film opens deeper questions. That lies at the heart of its power, accessible to empathetic viewers who are willing to get curious and bypass explanations.