“Some things are only experienced by thinking and living abjectly,” says Hélène (Ariane Labed), one of the main characters in Philippe Grandrieux’s fifth feature film Malgré la Nuit. With this quote, she tries to explain her sexual behavior to her lover, Lenz (Kristian Marr), the other central character in the film. One would say that behavior, of which we have already seen one extremely violent example, is deviant, abject indeed. But she wants it, needs it, looks to it for a connection to life, for an escape from something. She reveals what that something is a few moments later in the scene, and the screen goes black. Grief does strange things to people.
Hélène is one of three women in a story that is essentially Lenz’s quest. The most important one, and the goal of this quest, is the one woman we don’t see during the course of the film, save for a polaroid: Madeleine. This elusive woman is the reason Lenz returned to Paris after years of absence. His reasons to come looking for her are unclear until very late in the film, when we learn about the nature of their relationship. Over the course of the film, Lenz develops (mostly sexual) relationships with two other women, who serve as stand-ins for the real Madeleine, as can already be inferred by their names: Lena and Hélène.
Lena (Roxane Mesquida) and Lenz meet at a party, and end up in bed. Even though Lenz has no real interest in her, she plays a pivotal catalyst in his journey to self-discovery. Through her Lenz meets her father, Vitali (Johan Leysen), an unsavoury character who deals in man’s worst habits. It is to him that Lena turns when jealousy consumes her after learning of Lenz’s relationship with this other woman, Hélène, and this spells doom for both.
It is suggested that Hélène and Lenz are old friends, and their relationship is more developed than the one Lenz has with Lena. Still, Hélène too is just an image, or if you will an aspect of Madeleine. Whereas the ethereal, younger and beautiful Lena represents the Madeleine that Lenz remembers, Hélène, with actress Ariane Labed’s more dour and somewhat masculine features, is a closer representation of what Madeleine is in the present. From what others tell of her, or have heard of her, Madeleine’s life has gone downhill. She has turned to prostitution, and it is implied she is on the low end (or should we say ‘dark end’) of the spectrum. This lies close to Hélène, a woman who engages in debasing sexual acts. At night she becomes a slave to the extreme, a lost soul who tries to get close to death to feel something, anything. This idea isn’t wholly new to cinema, but the extremes to which she goes are rare. Of recent work, Urszula Antoniak’s Code Blue comes to mind, and there is an interesting parallel between that film’s central female character being a palliative nurse, and Hélène in Malgré la Nuit taking care of old people in a nursing home. Both women are close to death, and both are in a state of emotional withdrawal.
But where Code Blue chooses a cold and austere aesthetic, Grandrieux’s strongly stylized approach (over-exposition, shallow focus, whispered dialogue, extreme close-ups) gives the film a sensual, almost dreamlike quality, which makes the nightmarish scenes of Hélène’s nocturnal forays that largely abandon these stylizations and are put in a much harsher light (quite literally) all the more visceral and powerful. As Hélène and Lena are an image of Madeleine, Grandrieux creates an image of the story: the heightened reality of the imagery and sound shape the film’s world as an alternate, where one’s passions, fears, and darkest thoughts come into shape. It is very akin to some of David Lynch’s work in that it floats somewhere in between real and dream/nightmare. A particular example of this are the scenes in Vitali’s club, which could be the basement floor of Club Silencio.
What will be seared into most viewers’ minds, however, are the extremely violent scenes in which women are the underlying party, whether it is by choice or not. It would be too easy to dismiss Grandrieux as a misogynist though. What should be noted is that the principal men in the film, outside of Lenz, are cast in a far more negative light: Vitali is the devil incarnate, his nameless helper a diabolical brute, and Lenz’s only male friend Louis (Paul Hamy) is an arrogant bastard. These are men that are, simply by their actions, placed far outside most people’s reality, and certainly outside people’s morals. They’re Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, almost cartoonish archetypes. Hélène is far more difficult to place, and psychologically the most complex character of the film. Because of her extremes, the film in many ways belongs to her, and viewers will certainly remember her most, not only because of the ultimate ‘brave’ performance of Ariane Labed. What she does in the film, and how she must have reached that point as an actor, boggles the mind. There is a sadness in her portrayal that comes to a culmination in the scene described in the opening paragraph. It is, as they say, a towering performance.
Little has been said so far about Lenz, who is after all the character that sets everything in motion. It is his quest. Yet he is a bit of an enigmatic character, and in a sense a red herring. His path leads past colorful characters (even if they’re all shades of black), which all the more illuminates the little we learn of him. But that path still ultimately leads to his self-discovery, and amid all the misery, somewhat suprisingly to love. Because in essence, Malgré la Nuit is a film about connections, to others, to ourselves, and to life. Those willing to look past the style (even though it’s part of the point) and the extremity, will find a deeply human, if very dark film. Sadly, many will probably only see the darkness, and label the film ‘misery porn’. That’s the easy way out of a deeply affecting film in which Grandrieux hits a primal nerve.