Writer and Director: Christophe Honoré
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The English title for this psychoanalytical farce from France seems a little dull and unmemorable. The title also gives the impression that the film will be some kind of schmaltzy rom com, when, in fact, On a Magical Night is a talky, and occasionally self-indulgent, examination of middle-aged desire.
It would have been better to stick to the French title, Chambre 212, (Room 212). There’s a hidden meaning within this title, revealed in the film’s last third, but just because the number is connected to French law, doesn’t mean that an English-speaking audience wouldn’t get the reference. To use the original title, Chambre 212, would have lent some gravitas to Christophe Honorè’s film, gravitas that the English title doesn’t offer.
Films about extramarital affairs are not rare, but here Honorè, gently twists the expected genders of the protagonists. It is the wife here who is the serial adulterer, while her husband stays at home, having given up his career as a pianist. In a role that earned her the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Performance at Cannes this year Chiara Mastroianni plays Maria, a 50-something university lecturer with a penchant for her male students. We meet her at the film’s beginning with newest protégé, the delightfully named Asdrubal Electorat. However, it is Asdrubal’s eager texting that alerts Maria’s husband to the fact that she is having an affair.
These early minutes of the film are the best, with flashes of Woody Allen in his prime as the couple argue in their fancy Parisian apartment. Mastroianni, the daughter of Catherine Deneuve, is spellbinding here, and if wasn’t for her performance the film would certainly drag. She’s confident and cool, and convinces as a woman who’s forgotten where her heart is. When she moves to the hotel across the road, she’s visited by a roomful of ghosts.
It’s when the ghosts arrive – presumably the magic of the English title – that the film becomes less interesting. While she spies on her husband Richard (an excellent Benjamin Biolay) from the hotel, his younger self comes to meet her. This younger Richard, at the age when they first met, is very different from the Richard across the street. He’s more optimistic, more idealistic and more virile. This was the man Maria fell in love with, but he longer exists.
More ghosts arrive – amongst them, Maria’s mother, Richard’s piano teacher –but the film works best when the conversations are only between the two leads, Mastroianni and Biolay, who, in some well-intentioned irony, were once married to each other in real life. As the younger Richard, Vincent Lacoste is smarmy and faintly repellent, very different from his older self. Camille Cottin – who plays Fleabag in the French adaptation – is fragile and dangerous as Richard’s seducer. But we only care really for husband and wife.
Although set in the present day, Honorè uses a faded colour palette, evoking a Paris of the 60s, where free love didn’t come with responsibilities and consequences. Like the 60s, everyone chain smokes, while drinking numerous whiskeys-on-ice. Everything here is very French, right down to the existential crises of the characters.
The melancholic atmosphere is heightened by Honoré’s tricksy angles, and the music, which includes Max Richter’s minimalist version of The Four Seasons, and, finally, a sorrowful take on Barry Manilow’s Could It Be Magic? But by this time, Honoré’s magical night has gone on for far too long, and, although this film is less than 90 minutes long, dawn takes an awfully long time to appear.
The London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October