Toutes les nuits
DIRECTOR: Eugène Green | WRITER: Eugène Green | CAST: Alexis Loret, Adrien Michaux, Christelle Prot, Claude Merlin, Laurène Cheilan | France
I knew nothing about Eugène Green until quite recently when I kept noticing references to him as a “Bressonian” film director, and when I discovered that he’s an American expat in France who’s made a name for himself both academically and in practice as an authority on French baroque theater I decided to test the waters with Green’s debut film, Toutes les nuits. My initial reaction was astonished disbelief at just how blatantly Green appropriates Bresson’s approach and style. The disbelief became irritation which morphed about halfway through the movie into amusement. Much of the movie looks and feels almost exactly like L’argent, but with generous allusions, visual and otherwise, to half a dozen other Bresson films (particularly Pickpocket and Un condamné à mort s’est échappé). Toutes les nuits looks stripped down to the essentials with a reliance on synecdoche rather than superfluous details; establishing shots are of isolated body parts, usually feet, or walls or windows; the actors are generally affectless and physically still, and the dialogue is often stiff, formal, filled with short declarative statements; characters exit the frame but the camera will linger, unmoving, for several more seconds; we hear letters read as voiceovers (this is to a large degree an epistolary movie).
But Green has his own stylistic quirks. Conversations between two people generally have a establishing shot showing the two facing each other followed by a series of reverse shots as each speaks in turn — there is no overlapping dialogue — and with each looking directly into the camera as though directly into the other’s eyes. (That last bit is quite un-Bressonian. Coincidentally, I came across this from Notes on the Cinematographer a few days ago: “Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks. The reason why we get the color of a person’s eyes wrong?” Surely Bresson wouldn’t have forced us to look into his actors’ eyes constantly like this.) Green also has his actors face the camera directly with blank but not slack expressions, as if they’re watching us closely while we’re looking at them. I found this over-frequent breaking of the fourth wall unsettling if not necessarily confrontational, and I grew tired of what I can only imagine was the then-neophyte film director’s experiment. It doesn’t work. Not for me, or at least not this relentlessly.
The opening credits tell us that Toutes les nuits is based liberally on Flaubert’s La Première éducation sentimentale, which I have never read and about which I know only the vaguest of details. Green’s film focuses on two best friends from childhood as they and their friendship evolve over the years between their high school graduation in 1967 — when they go their separate ways while maintaining their friendship through letters — and their full adulthood in 1979. Henri is the more conventional of the two, certain of the future he wants for himself and pragmatic in his pursuits; Jules, by contrast, is idealistic and something of a mystic who seeks order behind the seeming chaos of the real world. (That’s as close as I can summon up of what he was about.) At the rigorous and conservative Parisian boarding school he attends before going on to university, Henri falls in love with the headmaster’s wife, Émilie, and the two run away to New York together where they spend the tumultuous year of 1968; their relationship doesn’t last and they return to France, separated, but not before Jules and Émilie begin corresponding with each other apart from Henri; indeed, Jules and Émilie become in some sense soulmates even though they deliberately never meet face to face. What matters in Toutes les nuits is that meeting of souls. I think. Jules, who early in the film says that the “only time you can be happy is at night”, at the end of the film writes to Henri, “We’re not alike in the world, and yet, fate was right to bring us together, for by a great mystery we are both wandering in the same night.”
I’ve had a hard time figuring out what I think about this movie. Some of it doesn’t work. I’m not entirely clear why Green set the movie during the decade he did. Henri and Émilie watch Les événements de mai 1968 unfold on television from New York while Jules in Aix-en-Provence is a bystander more than anything. Henri and Jules separately show their disdain for what the movie characterizes as groupthink post-structuralist cant. Feminism is caricatured as buffoonish lesbian separatism. And yet there’s something about the movie that grabs me and I can’t place quite what it is or why. For right now I’m going to say the movie is really good. Maybe after I watch it again in a few months, and I will, I’ll reevaluate. (By the way: the movie gets its title from the haunting 16th century madrigal “Toutes les nuits” by Clément Janequin, and a solo version is performed under the opening credits with the melody worked into the soundtrack at various points in the movie.)