David Jenkins


The Passengers of the Night – first-look review

This aimless and thin family portrait set in ’80s Paris is boosted by an affecting turn from Charlotte Gainsbourg.

This meandering and largely inconsequential family drama from filmmaker Mikhaël Hers opens on the 1981 election of François Mitterand in France, a victory which, in Paris at least, has sparked throngs of revellers who clearly see him as an usher for necessary change. This ripe political backdrop ends up being a red herring, as the close-knit family presented in the film don’t discuss or interact with anything which might display their struggles as emblematic of society at large.

On the contrary: it’s a hushed, interior film of shy people attempting to soothe their worldly ills through work, family and relationships with the odd outsider. At the centre is the softly-spoken matriarch Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is still smarting from a bout of illness and a sudden divorce, left with two teenage children to raise and a serious bout of insomnia. By chance she’s offered a job as switchboard operator on her favourite late-night radio talk show, Passengers of the Night, hosted by the velvet-voiced Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart).

This new low-paid gig is not exactly a paragon of job security, but fun and stimulating – a good start on the journey towards personal reaffirmation. It’s there she connects with fellow nightbird Talulah (Noée Abita), an 18-year-old drifter who has flitted from her parents and manages to scrape by on the streets. Concerned about her youth and vulnerability, Elisabeth invites her over to stay, and she quickly steals the heart of pastey, poetry-writing son Matthias (Quito Rayon Richter).

The melancholy narrative drifts rather than charges, and everything plays out under a bed of shoegaze-y ambient music. Which is fine, but there ends up being very little into which you can truly sink your teeth, mainly because the dilemmas and traumas faced by the characters are not particularly original, or dealt with in an exciting manner. Gainsbourg is the dramatic lynchpin and excels in cloaking the wells of pain and sadness under glassy expressions of world-weary bemusement, yet the other key protagonists, while strong taken as individuals, are not able to operate at her level of subtlety.

There’s an interesting sub-plot in the movie involving the tragic French actress Pascale Ogier, who died at the age of 25 from complications stemming from drug use. Talulah becomes fascinated by her when she and Mattias go to see Eric Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris at the cinema, and later goes to see her in Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord before later learning of her passing. The arc of Talulah’s story seems to echo that of Ogier, and she even wears a similar leather jacket to the one the actor wears in Rivette’s film. Yet the similarities are fleeting and – like so much in the film – end up being incidental.

Visually, Hers connects the scenes with 8mm inserts of Parisian street scenes which are very pleasant, but don’t really relate to the meat of the matter. It’s an intriguing cross-cut of a family suffering from some mild emotional trauma, but dramatically it’s also a film that seems adamant not to land a single killer blow.

Published 13 Feb 2022

Tags: Berlin Film Festival Charlotte Gainsbourg French Cinema Mikhaël Hers The Passengers of the Night

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