Writer-director Anne Émond's film about two strangers who have a one-night stand is a debut feature that punches above its own weight. Clara (Catherine de Léan) and Nikolaï (Dimitri Storoge) meet at a rave—its pulsing rhythms rendered in hypnotic slow-motion—and go back to his apartment, where they tear one another's clothing off. What begins as a movie in the mold of Michael Winterbottom's hot-and-heavy 9 Songs metamorphoses into an improbably insightful meditation on the politics of mood, sexuality, and Quebecois national identity. Unlike films that employ graphic sex to arouse the audience into distraction, often in order to make their lackluster non-sexual portions more bearable, e.g., Xavier Giannoli’s Eager Bodies, Nuit #1 uses sex as the prism through which to examine its broader sociopolitical concerns.
Most of the film takes place in Nikolaï's cramped Montreal apartment where he and Clara confess their fears, secrets, and dysfunctional habits in a series of paroxysmal expiations. Nikolaï, a Ukrainian immigrant who feels detached from both Canada and his native country, explains that he never graduated from art school because he still owes the library money for an unreturned book on the painter Francis Bacon, whom he now deplores (“Painting pieces of meat when your name is Bacon? Pathetic!”). Clara, an elementary-school teacher, is a die-hard party girl who self-medicates with frequent, anonymous sex.
Using her keen sense of observation, director Émond paints a vivid portrait of two people living on society's margins—individuals who, despite their manifold problems, you want to get to know. Offhand questions (“Are you hungry?”) and mundane behavioral detail (Clara puts both sock and shoe on one foot before tending to the other) are deployed to form a tableau whose granularity gives it sociological authority and psychological impact. These decisions do not call attention to themselves, but in aggregate result in a film that is much more than the sum of its parts. As Clara, Catherine de Léan gives a full-throated performance that holds nothing back. (That she looks uncannily like the love child of Fanny Ardant and Irène Jacob only adds to her appeal.)
Mathieu Laverdière's understated cinematography is impressive, and exquisite at times. The interior shots of Nikolai's apartment, in particular, show a talent for composition and for contrasting depth of field, as well as a careful attention to color and shadow. The sensitive editing, cinematography, and direction yield a film of remarkable visual economy, in which neither a cut nor a quadrant of a frame is wasted. The judicious use of music maintains the film's even keel even as its characters erupt with waves of emotion.
Nuit #1 has no pretensions to being a masterpiece but successfully strives to be its best possible self. It delves deep to identify what lurks beneath the surface of societies that makes some people prefer to live on the margins, with a specific eye for the French-Canadian context. It’s a politically engaged film that explores politics at the level of daily life, at its intersection with the forces of sexuality, habit, and mood.
Given its many monologues and limited number of locations (one apartment, one street), one might initially consider Nuit #1 a work better suited to the theater than to film. Yet no theater piece could call the audience's attention to the visual parallel between the patterning of Nikolai's bathroom tiles and Clara's exposed collarbones, as she describes her fears of slipping below life's waters, never to be found again. This exacting attention to detail combined with a fastidiously constructed screenplay, passionate and convincing performances by the actors, and Émond’s intuitive sense for what feels like a new genre—ennui-core?—make Nuit #1 a much better movie than it had to be. And thankfully so.