The streets outside her window are dripping with hope, and yet Élisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is lost. It is Paris, 1981, a new president has been elected, and Élisabeth’s husband has left, claiming the thrillingness of motion by moving in with a new girlfriend while his ex is left with the stagnance of remaining, the apartment where they’ve raised their children, Judith (Megan Northam) and Matthias (Quito Rayon-Richter), at once comfortingly familiar and dreadfully new. At night, while her progeny either sleeps or sneaks away into the clandestine get-togethers of youth, their mother stares out of the window, her favorite radio show playing in the background.
Premiering at the prestigious competition strand at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Mikhaël Hers’ “The Passengers of the Night” is a melancholic patchwork composed of the ever-developing ripples of seemingly ordinary acts. A letter, written during a bout of insomnia, takes Élisabeth to a spacious recording studio, where she lands a poorly-paying gig as a switchboard operator for a radio host. The job leads her to Talulah (Noée Abita), a bright eyed-squatter she invites into her spare bedroom. At once unbearably unmanageable and impossibly beguiling, Talulah pushes the mother of two further into the terrifying pits of self-discovery.
Élisabeth lives a life framed by windows. She spends hours watching the city become dormant from the privileged viewpoint of her corner apartment, unable to fall into the arms of Morpheus. At work, a glass screen encases a one-person operation, the confined booth an entire world to this woman who has known space but never freedom. Independence, she uncovers, is an intoxicating elixir that spreads quickly through pulsing veins, rapidly transforming one from within.
The structures that consume Élisabeth are framed expertly by cinematographer Sébastien Buchmann. A closet is made cocoon, the warmth of dimmed lights bristling against the mirror, where the image of the woman reflects the physical vestiges of the past — what was once denouement beautifully turned preface. Grainy, ethereal 8mm footage of Paris intertwines with the sharpness of urban architecture, bridges, and laybys rigorously unmoving as the people pass them by are in constant metamorphosis. A body plunges into a river; the freezing wetness demands heat, a fire is lit, a kiss is shared, someone departs without saying goodbye.
Matthias dreams of being a poet while Judith blossoms with the electrifying thrill of political change, the two kids moved by the lyricism of legacy. Talulah, molded by the ever-changing cadences of impermanence, cares little for the gambles of the future, sipping big gulps of the present without worrying about tomorrow’s hangover. Periodically, the young woman allows herself to flirt with the past, sneaking through back doors to catch a matinée and unsparingly applying eyeliner to her already big eyes to mirror the actresses on the screen. “You’re like a little bird,” Élisabeth tells her under the all-revealing hues of early morning.
Hers’ ode to the beauty of shared moments is contemplative yet never drab, quiet yet full of verve. For its first act, the story is planted firmly in the shadows, as Élisabeth is somewhat reborn, left to navigate this all-engulfing world with tools she doesn’t yet possess. As the woman grows into her own, no longer doubtful of her desires nor fearful of her failures, all is drenched with light, the streets of Paris brimming with people and stories and zest. The intersection between these chapters is a ruminative dusk, the sun slowly seeping into cracks on windows and stained glass, characters no longer tightly juxtaposed or swollen by physical structures but, instead, roaming curiously as they search for love and pleasure and tenderness.
Here, people are passengers in the night, but the night is also a passenger in itself, working tirelessly to create the all-engulfing vastness of darkness just to gracefully bow to light once more and then do it all again. This cycle, predictable in its essence, is persistently made new by twilight, an encounter of two opposites denied the privilege of companionship, eternally doomed to brief meetings. Élisabeth is mirrored within the rhythm of this routine, equally condemned to blissful bursts of change followed by the sluggish helplessness of waiting. Gainsbourg is riveting in her portrayal of the intricacy of this pattern, her hands grasping for the tangibility of doorframes when words seem far too futile, her back arching and contracting to respond to ecstasy and sorrow.
“Some films, you only like them way later, or when you see them again,” ponders Talulah as memories of a recent watch unexpectedly flood her mind. In “The Passengers of the Night,” the same can be said of life itself, moments going by half-noticed to later return enveloped in the warmth of nostalgia, made even more precious by its unattainability. What is gone shall never return; no two nights are the same. [A-]