The French sex farce meets the French petite bourgeoisie relationship drama in Christophe Honoré’s lumpy but entertaining On a Magical Night (it’s a lumpy title too, though at least more characterful than its insipid native version, Chambre 212). Serial adulterer Chiara Mastroianni harumphs out of her Parisian apartment – 40% bookshelves, 40% baby grand piano, 20% living space – after her husband-of-25-years discovers her infidelity and responds, disgracefully, with mild disappointment. She legs it about as far as any product of nepotism ought to be expected to, making it literally across the street so she can book a night in the hotel room directly facing her home and spy on her husband, Benjamin Biolay. But this is, perhaps, an enchanted hotel room, as manifestations of characters from her past (amongst others) materialize, seemingly to teach her a few lessons on love, sex, romance, and the sheer state of herself! Catch yourself on, Chiara!
French artists teaching anybody lessons on any topic can be a particularly tiresome affair, even when they’re teaching each other (especially when they’re teaching each other!), and On a Magical Night is at its ignominious worst when it settles into extended passages of pompous philosophizing, all under the pretext that this hoity-toity heterosexual relationship is of the very utmost importance, and within the context of a playful, whimsical comic fantasy. Honoré overplays his hand with his concept, which is a shame, since he’s a talented filmmaker. Indeed, this buoyant little trifle of a movie is restless enough to find numerous opportunities for Honoré to show off his skills, with some sequences and effects of genuine grace and/or comedic vitality. The movie overall feels insufferably eager to endear itself to its audience, though the fact that it succeeds (if only sporadically) makes its eagerness insufferably sufferable. It’s a whole lot of nonsense, of course, but at least it has the good sense to be fluffy, willfully ephemeral nonsense.
Nonsense doesn’t even begin to describe Quentin Dupieux’s unhinged comedy Deerskin, a similarly unmistakably French patisserie treat, though this one comes with an acidic tang so sharp it slices right through you, empties out your innards and fashions your skin into a top-to-toe fringed cowboy ensemble. And that’s about the level of ludicrous you’ll find in this perfectly, exquisitely idiotic movie, which sees Dupieux take full control over a story that’s utterly out of control, as a solitary man first seeks to replace his old green corduroy blazer with a natty deerskin jacket, and then to sate the jacket’s desire to be the only jacket in the world. Yes, the jacket develops a desire. Best to just go with it. Resist, and you’ll soon find yourself totally adrift in Dupieux’s knowingly preposterous vision, where whatever he deems reasonable just is reasonable, whether it ought to be or not. Either that, or you’ll fall victim to a tarmac-sharpened ceiling fan blade through the neck!
In truth, beyond the zaniness of his one worthwhile idea (one idea stretched to a masterfully concise 75-odd minutes), Dupieux pushes no envelopes here, calibrating style and tone so as to draw out the deadpan humour from his outrageous scenario, and developing them little further. Deerskin is a daft, pointless comedy enamoured with its own pointlessness, and it’s every ‘pure cinema’ fan’s delight to witness a filmmaker exhibit such confidence in such idiosyncratic pursuit. Jean Dujardin is a terrific lead here, arguably better than ever before, and in support, Adèle Haenel adds another strong string to what may be the best bow in the business. It’s a whole, whole lot of nonsense through and through, of course, but paradoxically, nonsense with total conviction backing up its nonsense-ness actually makes perfect, glorious sense.
If there’s a stylistic spectrum, it’s tough to imagine two features further apart on it than Deerskin and Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency. A stark, sombre drama with barely a second’s worth of levity, this is heavy, punishing stuff that courts the kind of emotional extremes that reside right at the boundary between sobering sincerity and grand camp. Chukwu melds a pared-back, mildly minimalist mise-en-scène with the hard-hitting theatricality of her scenario and dialogue, each part to this unwieldy mixture displaying evident strengths, though their combined effect arguably less than their sum. There’s a Bergmanian depth and intensity being pursued here, nothing less, but while Chukwu is clearly a fine filmmaker, there have been few of Bergman’s talent through the whole of cinema history to date, and I wonder if only a true master such as he could have made such an ambitious project work as it must.
Clemency concerns Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a warden at a prison holding death row inmates, facing down the rough prospect of presiding over another execution after the last one went nastily wrong; to boot, she’s drinking too much and experiencing problems with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce). Though the movie seeks to make a mini-lead out of the condemned inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), it’s largely a single character study, the camera fixating upon Woodard’s mesmerizing visage as if to purge out her innermost feelings by sheer force of effort. Woodard holds fast, only relenting when called upon by the script, allowing a remarkable combination of micro-expressions, subtle physical gestures and near-undetectable changes in mood to reveal the extent of Bernadine’s torment. Chukwu is astute enough not to let the political issues innate to her material lie wholly dormant, but also astute enough not to belabour them – instead, she examines them through the toll they take on her protagonist, keeping the movie smartly streamlined, its perspective tidy and thereby possessed of a greater depth of power.
In the stillness and silence, Clemency is a wonderfully expressive movie, holding on Woodard’s fine performance, seeing that she guides us along its emotional trail. These, however, are necessary details to cover problems in the screenplay, which attempts to wade further and deeper down too many tributaries along this trail; it winds up having to resort to pithy clichés and inadequacies to cut itself loose from the emotional tangles in which it finds itself. There’s such bountiful, indeed almost inconceivably abundant raw potency to these situations alone that Chukwu’s cumbersome dialogue spoils too many scenes with its melodramatic exchanges, saying too much and communicating too little. Yet her compassion, integral to Clemency’s success, is clear, and as is Woodard’s. She’s a magnificent core to an otherwise mediocre movie.