Venice 2021 review: Ma nuit (Antoinette Boulat)

“Boulat’s first film worms its way into the brain through its strong characterization and firm directorial hand.”

Disguised as a simple and quirky ‘girl meets boy’ narrative, Antoinette Boulat’s debut feature Ma nuit, playing in the inaugural Orizzonti Extra section, is a surprisingly poignant film about loss, anxiety, dealing with toxic masculinity, and regaining one’s freedom. A film like only the French can make, existential questions abound as a random encounter with a charming oddball makes a young girl finally break free from the death of her sister in a night-long odyssey through Paris.

Marion (Lou Lampros) is going through a shitty day. It’s the anniversary of the death of her older sister Alice five years prior. Alice was as old as Marion is now, an idea that presses the finality of life on her. Her mom (Emmanuelle Bercot) is throwing a get-together with people who knew Alice, but Marion wants none of it. She’d rather go out and hang with her friends. After attending a techno-infused party she wanders the streets until she is chatted up by Alex (Tom Mercier). At first he seems to be just another guy invading her private space, but after he gets her out of a thorny situation Marion slowly opens up to Alex and his gentle manner and refreshing outlook on life.

The success of a film like Ma nuit hinges strongly on the performances of the two lead actors and their chemistry, and this is where Ma nuit strikes gold. Lampros and Mercier play so well off each other that you forget the latter doesn’t show up until half an hour into the film. Lampros has the more difficult role from a dramatic point of view. Her Marion has an arc to go through and she has to put all of that into a character that’s mostly directed inward, and one could argue that she is the sole lead of the film. But Mercier has a very tricky role to pull off with Alex because he has to work his way into Marion’s heart by not overtly gunning for it, unlike the string of men who try this aggressive approach on Marion throughout the film. Precisely because he holds off, Marion sees that Alex is harboring the best intentions for her. A secondary character explains to Marion late in the film that the most important thing in life is people who “want you well“, and she realizes that’s Alex, because he shows her that there is another approach to life, different from her fear of the future because of her sister dying at such a young age.

A character-driven drama, Ma nuit spends most of its time exploring Marion’s ennui and insecurity about life ahead, as she tries to overcome a psychological hurdle thrown up by the death of a loved one. Contrasted with her mother, who has moved on while holding Alice in memory, Marion is stuck in fear of looking forward. It takes a kind soul to guide her over that hurdle in an atypically romantic way. But Ma nuit also tackles the barrage of unwarranted attention young women have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, with Marion or her friends repeatedly being cornered, either directly or indirectly, in a male-dominated society. Boulat slips this in almost unnoticeably, but it increases the impact of Alex’s character. Her choice to shoot the film in a classic 4:3 ratio underlines this oppression, while it also effectively mirrors the constriction in Marion’s head. Ma nuit might not be fully impactful as a drama on first glance, but Boulat’s first film worms its way into the brain through its strong characterization and firm directorial hand.