Venice 2023 review: En attendant la nuit (Céline Rouzet)

“Céline Rouzet presents a lo-fi yet entrancing mix of horror and coming-of-age tale that signals the arrival of an exciting new voice in French cinema and genre filmmaking.”

With her debut feature En attendant la nuit (For Night Will Come) premiering in Venice’s Orizzonti sidebar, French filmmaker Céline Rouzet presents a lo-fi yet entrancing mix of horror and coming-of-age tale that signals the arrival of an exciting new voice in French cinema and genre filmmaking. After an opening scene in which the act of breastfeeding becomes a physically potent form of vampirism, we are properly introduced to a seemingly average family moving to a suburb in the countryside in late 1990s France: insurance agent dad Georges (Jean-Charles Clichet), homemaker-turned-nurse mom Laurence (Élodie Bouchez), teenage son Philémon (Mathias Legoût-Hammond), and tween daughter Lucie (Laly Mercier). Their initial fears about blending into the neighborhood and not attracting too much attention from the neighbours quickly prove to be more than just nerves about a big move, as we see the family casually consuming blood intravenously in order to control their vampiric urges. But for Philémon hiding his true nature from the world around him becomes more and more difficult as he yearns to become a “normal” teenager and hang out with friends his age, particularly Camila (Céleste Brunnquell), who finds herself intrigued by the odd newcomer.

The film follows many of the expected tropes of both coming-of-age and monster movies, and while this does rob the film of some of its tension, Rouzet proves incredibly adept at establishing a mood that makes it compulsively watchable. Rouzet and cinematographer Maxence Lemonnier create a highly effective visual grammar for the film – the sequences at dusk and dawn are eerily beautiful with their cooler colour palette, recalling a Gothic fairy tale; while the hyperreal brightness of the daytime sequences, whether in a suburban backyard or in the overwhelming forests that surround the area, is at once hypnotic while also pointing to the fakeness of conformist suburbia. The film doesn’t overwhelm you with signifiers that it is set in the late 1990s, but both the visuals and Jean-Benoît Dunckel’s score – a dreamy mix of synths and orchestral pieces – do a fabulous job of creating a vibe of the not so distant past. While not exactly nostalgic, there is a sense of yearning in the teen hangout scenes for how much simpler and more tactile these moments were before streaming and phones began to dominate adolescent lives. The film is at its best when following Philémon’s attempts to integrate himself into Camila’s friend group and the freezing out that follows once his weirdness crosses the line, to the point where the plotlines about his mother searching for blood sources and the family’s fear of discovery, while narratively necessary, can’t help but feel like distractions from where the film is most involving. However, these strands do eventually coalesce into a final 20 minutes that is an unsettling demonstration of how conformity can breed violence and self-sacrifice.

Rouzet has also assembled a fabulous cast to bring her film to life. In his first on-screen role, Mathias Legoût-Hammond proves himself to be a new talent to watch. Philémon is a tricky role to play: he must be socially awkward in a way that isn’t too off-putting and is in fact strangely charming, while also fighting with his inner bloodlust the closer he gets to becoming a typical teenager. Legoût-Hammond has an unconventional charisma that serves the role extremely well, and he is equally impressive in the scenes where his physicality and anger play a more prominent role in Philémon’s struggle between the vampire that he is and the regular teen he wishes he was. He is well-matched with Céleste Brunnquell, who brings a refreshing spikiness to a role that is slightly underserved by the script. She does an excellent job at conveying Camila’s growing dissatisfaction with the “perfect” suburban life and the shallow teens that she’s friends with. As Philémon’s parents struggling with both his rebellion and their own growing dissatisfaction with the constraints of vampiric life, Élodie Bouchez and Jean-Charles Clichet serve as effective counterpoints to the teenage awakening at the centre of the film. Bouchez, who has been having a much-deserved career renaissance since her incredibly moving performance in Pupille a few years ago, has what is unfortunately the least interesting subplot of the film (Laurence needing to steal blood bags from donation sites), but manages to demonstrate Laurence’s conflicting feelings about the lengths she must go to in order to feed her family. And from the point where her family’s true nature is inevitably revealed, she is very effective at portraying the fear and anguish that come with trying to protect her children from harm. Clichet, also a standout in Venice Out of Competition entry On the Pulse, has less to do but is impressive as a man slowly cracking under the pressure of maintaining a “normal” façade in order to protect his family, while being in conflict with his son’s burgeoning teenage emotions and sexuality. While En attendant la nuit doesn’t contain any narrative surprises, Rouzet uses vampirism as an obvious yet effective metaphor for how nonconformity can be isolating particularly as a teenager, and how fear of the “other” can lead to senseless violence. Eschewing the gore one would expect with a vampire film, Rouzet has instead crafted a strange yet moving homage to her own 1990s adolescence. And with the striking block-font, violet-coloured end credits playing with Hole’s “Violet” blasting over them, she gifts us a final howl of teenage angst that promises a bright filmmaking future.