The opening-night movie was hardly what you’d call a “festival film,” but one couldn’t write it off either.
The press screenings at the Berlinale are special affairs. They are scheduled before the world premiere of the films in competition, which means we are literally the first audience for these films. I’m going to keep this thought in mind the next time I have to slave on a Sunday, or review a film being released on a festival day when everyone else is enjoying a break.
The film that opened the festival was Isabel Coixet’s Nobody Wants the Night, featuring Juliette Binoche as Josephine Peary. Yes, that Peary. Her husband has taken off to plant a flag in the North Pole, and she wants to be there, near him, when he does. And so she embarks on a journey as perilous as his, from a snow-filled Canadian outpost to places Arctic-wards that probably haven’t been named. All we see is snow.
For a while, the film comes off like an all-female answer to Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. (Incidentally, his new film, Queen of the Desert, is playing at this festival.) Here, too, we have a Westerner in a strange world, filled with the stubborn determination to achieve the impossible. “We’ll make it,” says Josephine. Later, she adds, “One must always finish what one begins – and I will finish this.” Had the winds not been howling around her so, we might have heard the grinding of clenched teeth.
But even behind the screen, we have a director pushing a star through one hostile setup after another – avalanche, thin ice, conditions that induce nosebleeds and hair loss and not a little loss of sanity. In a direct echo of Fitzcarraldo, whose protagonist wanted to bring opera to a city in the Peruvian rainforest, we have a scene where Josephine invites Alaka, an Inuit and the only other person around, into her living quarters and gives her a taste of Western culture. Red wine. Cutlery. Opera on the record player.
And slowly we realise that this most exterior of films has taken a sharp U-turn and turned its attention to the interiority of these two women. Nobody Wants the Night, finally, is a hi-toned “buddy movie” where two very different people circle each other warily before becoming friends or more. Coixet keeps things interesting by reducing these women to near-archetypes. Alaka, in her pidgin English, keeps talking about “woman” and “man.” Peary, a “man,” abandoned a frostbitten colleague because he didn’t want to be slowed down. Josephine, on the other hand, shows what a “woman” would do when faced with someone in a condition that needs its own kind of attention.
The only “man” with a somewhat significant role is Gabriel Byrne, who plays a guide named Bram. Early on, Josephine asks him why he keeps coming back to these godforsaken places. He says, ponderously, that it’s the purity, that these places are purer than the sea, the skies. “It takes me away from human beings and brings me close to nothingness.” We are left with the impulse to giggle. Josephine gives us permission to do so. She looks away and says, “I’m sorry. That’s a little too mystical for me.” But soon, after everyone but Alaka has left, she’s screaming out into the void. She knows now what “close to nothingness” is.
Nobody Wants the Night is an odd film that drifts all over the place and never really locates its centre. But even when it veers to the brink of triteness, especially in the scenes where a “man” keeps dispensing voiceovers that are intended to be lyrical but end up sounding like a third-grader’s idea of poetry, we can’t take our eyes off Josephine and Alaka. Binoche gives a typically guarded performance – at times, she appears colder than her surroundings. And the remarkable Rinko Kikuchi, as Alaka, suffuses the film with much-needed warmth.
Nobody Wants the Night may not have the artistic rigor to be a truly top-notch “festival film,” but I got the impression that the dilution was deliberate, that the middlebrow-Hollywood air comes from Coixet trying to be a little more mainstream. Art-house success is all very good, but it’s always nice when your movie makes a little money. You can almost hear the American trailer. “They came from different worlds. They spoke different languages. But they found they weren’t all that different after all.” The film could be titled Dances With Huskies.
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