Cannes by Koehler: You and the Night
Deliriously theatrical, flagrantly cinephilic, unabashedly provocative, Yann Gonzalez’s You and the Night is the kind of movie that restores your faith in auteur filmmaking. Cahiers du cinéma’s tip that it was the debut feature to watch in Cannes turns to be absolutely on the mark: for this blog’s focus on discoveries, my viewing of over 20 debuts (all eligible for the Camera d’Or prize) resulted in the crystal-clear conclusion that Gonzalez’s first feature is in a class by itself, declaring a supremely gifted young artist in total control of his abilities and confident enough to ignore fashionable trends.
In an era when realism continues to dominate, Gonzalez’s embrace of theatrical techniques and archetypes—it’s inaccurate to refer to his people as “characters” in the typical sense—places his movie in a line with Cocteau, Brisseau, Greenaway, and Buñuel, even as it also directly recalls the group dynamics and confessionals of The Breakfast Club. Gonzalez absorbs and sometimes even quotes from the representational figures in Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the hermetically sealed world of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, the magical mythologies addressed in most of Brisseau’s films (along with his taste for sexual extremes), and, most of all, Cocteau’s Orpheus, with the gender reversed. Niels Schneider plays the Eurydice figure, Matthias (recalling the stunning beauty of Jean Marais), who is rescued from the dead and in love with Kate Moran’s Orpheus-like Ali. Despite what may sound like a litany of cinema-geeky reference points, Gonzalez is nevertheless his own artist, skillfully absorbing a cornucopia of influences and producing something in his own distinctive voice, one that blends deadpan comedy, camp appeal, dramatic menace, and transcendent romance.
As the superior French title Les Rencontres d’après minuit suggests, the film (yes, it was shot on 35mm, though projected like everything else in Cannes on digital) takes places in a nocturnal setting at a mysterious mansion in the countryside, where Ali and Matthias have organized a party. (The American-born Moran is Gonzalez’s favorite actor, starring in several of his short films; she’s also a recent favorite of Greenaway and Robert Wilson.) They’ve invited a motley group over for a mix of drinks, talk, and sex, and their names indicate that we’re a world away from psychological realism: the Stud (the inimitable Eric Cantona), the Star (Fabienne Babe, a favorite of some of the great older generation of European auteurs from Rivette to Monteiro to Pialat), the Slut (impressive ingenue Julie Brémond), and the Teen (Alain Delon’s son Alain Fabien Delon, whose close resemblance to his father doesn’t distract from a performance that delivers a moving payoff in the final sequence).
The scenario is meticulously structured. Gonzalez bookends a tale that begins in the evening and ends at sunrise with Ali and Matthias’s slowly developing, tragic relationship, which is threatening to collapse due to Matthias’s tenuous hold on staying alive—sustained only if Ali continues to love him with total dedication. Between these two poles, the party proceeds, “directed” by Ali and Matthias’s loyal Maid (the jaunty Nicolas Maury, who injects welcome camp wit and style), with each guest arriving separately and delivering monologues that serve as self-portraits but inevitably become confessionals. The funniest, and hands-down winner of best movie speech in Cannes, belongs to ex-soccer star Cantona’s Stud and his description of how his huge endowments became a blessing and a curse. Babe’s Star demands not to be touched as a condition of joining the party, but the gathering has a way of throwing every guest’s intentions off-kilter. And nothing’s more off-kilter than Gonzalez’s deliberately artificial setting, which looks like a much smaller interior than the exterior views of the mansion would suggest, and may be as much the projection of a dream as it is a “real” place, with the suggestion that human willpower is subsumed by the more powerful collective unconscious.
Although You and the Night is can be filed under Queer Cinema, it’s that and more, and finally, like all works of art, lies outside of easy categories. It may also be filed under a category that might be called “New Romanticism,” in which classical themes of love, honor, sacrifice, and fate intermingle with modern love, gender role reversals, and hipster lifestyles. It’s this latter factor that will definitely make the movie a must-see in the hippest urban cinephile corners around the world, yet there’s also a timelessness in Gonzalez’s vision—climaxing in a stunning and deeply moving denouement that will surprise even the most sympathetic viewer—that suggests a movie with more than just trendy contemporary appeal. The final sequences—such a contrast to the early ones, peppered with deliciously campy turns and cameos by the likes of Beatrice Dalle as an Ilsa-like prison director—combine day-for-night cinematography, a tender visualization of death, the magical transformation of twilight to sunrise, and the gradual separation of the partygoers for a poignant finale that offers a surprising call for the emotional importance of family. A more beautiful ending can’t be found anywhere in Cannes.