“Quitter la nuit shows that a single wrong decision between two people can mark the lives of both of them, and it does so with aplomb and an accessibility that could turn this film into a modest arthouse hit.”
When Anna (Veerle Baetens), operator on an emergency hotline, takes a call from a woman seemingly having called the wrong number, it takes her a while to realize the person on the other side of the line is faking a conversation with her sister to avoid direct danger. Aly (Selma Alaoui), the woman in question, is in a car with Dary (Guillaume Duhesme), who is clearly agitated and increasingly impatient with Aly’s phone call. They hooked up earlier that night at a party and decided to go out for a drink, but somehow ended up speeding down the highway with one of them fearing for her life at the hands of the other. Once they are located and stopped by police, Aly accuses Dary of having raped her, something he vehemently denies. And so begins the long slog of Aly trying to both get justice and reinstate order in her life, while Dary tries to move past the incident. But the incident is gnawing at both of them, and also at Anna, for whom one call revives a darkness from the past.
Belgian director Delphine Girard’s debut film Quitter la nuit tackles an issue that has gotten more attention, if not always to a satisfactory resolution, ever since MeToo blew up about a decade ago. But while the situation around sexual assault cases has definitely improved and perpetrators face consequences more often, the film shows that victims still have to clear many hurdles, both emotional and legal. Police investigations can be gruelling and confrontational, often by necessity, but rarely provide for psychological aftercare. The justice system is so clogged up that it takes two years for Aly’s case to make it to court. And then there is the age-old ‘he said, she said’ that plagues incidents like hers, where there are no witnesses around. Because what did really happen? And was she not kissing Dary before, and even after?
As their story unfolds, or perhaps unravels, Aly has to navigate shame and unfair questions while Dary has to do some soul searching with possible jail time hanging over his head. In between these scenes of anxiety Girard shows, through flashbacks, the build-up to the fateful moment in which all doubt about what happened between them is erased, should it still exist. ‘Believe the woman’ is the mantra that has been imprinted on us in recent years, but Girard shows us that even if we do that, doubt is easily sown. The only person to unequivocally believe Aly besides her sister Lulu (Adèle Wismes) is Anna, the woman who could hear the fear in Aly’s voice. There is a personal reason for that, beautifully revealed in a touching scene with her son, but whether Quitter la nuit really needs her plotline is doubtful. Anna’s story doesn’t really add anything to the film other than to showcase Baetens’ talent, but anybody who has seen The Broken Circle Breakdown, her best-known role, probably already knew that.
Baetens’ is just one in a plethora of strong performances, as the whole cast delivers stellar work. At the heart of the film, Selma Alaoui’s subtle rendition of a battered woman trying to grope her way out of the dark is a quiet force to be reckoned with. Like Baetens, most of her work is internal. “It’s all in the eyes,” as they say. Duhesme, Wismes, and even Anne Dorval as Dary’s mother complement her, but Alaoui puts on screen one of those mesmerizing performances that will linger.
Girard, who also wrote the screenplay, holds tight control over the film, never letting it slide into pure melodrama that would have diluted the graveness of the subject matter. Which is not to say she doesn’t build tension. The opening sequence in which the call between Aly and Anna transpires almost inevitably reminds one of 2018’s The Guilty, but having both sides of the conversation play out heightens the suspense and is edge-of-your-seat material. The way Girard uses camera placement, framing and blocking, and slow zooms to guide the viewer’s emotions throughout the film is powerful. Where it wavers is in its screenplay. The aforementioned storyline concerning Anna is perhaps not superfluous but gets too much time for what it is, and once we reach the pivotal moment in the film, Quitter la nuit unfortunately can be seen as letting Dary off the hook. Replaying the audio of Aly and Anna’s call in court triggers his memory and him realizing what he did was wrong, but when we actually see it play out in real time it is incomprehensible that he didn’t realize in the moment what he was doing. The scene leaves no room for interpretation, not even for him as a perpetrator.
In the grand scheme of the film this is a relatively minor negative though, as Quitter la nuit is a strong adult drama about a difficult subject, handled with care and diplomacy and strong direction. Girard clearly still needs to find a voice of her own, but her control over the film demonstrates that with a little bit more personality she might be capable of a masterpiece, and the excellent performances show that she can bring the best out of her actors. Modest yet powerful, Quitter la nuit shows that a single wrong decision between two people can mark the lives of both of them, and it does so with aplomb and an accessibility that could turn this film into a modest arthouse hit.