Thursday 19 December 2019

On a Magical Night (Christophe Honoré, 2019)

On a Magical Night marks the sixth collaboration between director Christophe Honoré and actress Chiara Mastroianni, and it follows the general rule that these two are at their best when working with each other.  While Love Songs remains the pinnacle of the pair's work together, On a Magical Night - which reunites Honoré and Mastroianni for the first time since 2011's Beloved - sees the two drive each other on to good effect.  Mastroianni picked up the best performance award in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section for On a Magical Night, a film which sees her equal Louis Garrel's record of half a dozen stints in front of the camera for Honoré.  The cast is rounded out by Vincent Lacoste (who returns from Honoré's previous film Sorry Angel), the excellent Camille Cottin, Benjamin Biolay, plus some serious star power in the form of the welcome presence of Carole Bouquet, who doesn't make enough films these days.

Mastroianni's Maria has been married to Richard (Biolay) for 20 years, and the couple have now hit a wall in their relationship.  Following a major argument, Maria moves out of their apartment, but doesn't go very far - in fact, she checks in to the hotel directly across the street from the marital home.  From her room in the hotel, she can watch Benjamin moping around in the aftermath of their row; the particular room Maria's holed up in - 212 - carries significance, as its number is shared by a section of civil code which outlines spousal obligations.  So far, so straightforward, but events take a strange turn when Maria is visited by a ghost from the past in the form of the young Richard (Lacoste).  From this younger version of her husband, Maria learns all about Richard's first love Irène (Cottin), who soon joins the couple in the hotel room.  Like Richard, Irène has also turned the clock back, and appears to be the age she was when she and Richard were in a relationship.  All of this gives the initially baffled Maria - who remains her actual age throughout - plenty to think about as she considers both the state of her marriage and her next move.

As a studio-bound affair featuring just a handful of actors, On a Magical Night could quite easily be a play (and Honoré is no stranger to theatre), yet at no point does it feel stagey.  While much of the action takes place in the hotel room, Honoré lets his film breathe via a late seaside scene and, most memorably, the road which separates Maria's hotel and apartment.  Shots of this avenue play a big part in creating the film's wonderfully rich atmosphere; as the snow begins to fall on this quiet street - which prominently features a seven-screen cinema - the beauty of the mise-en-scène is something to behold.  However, the icy spectacle also serves to remind us that Richard and Maria are in the winter of their relationship, and it's going to take a mighty big snow shovel to dig them out of it.

While there isn't a weak link among the small cast, and Mastroianni is as good as we've come to expect, it's actually Camille Cottin who steals every scene she's in; since starting off in a series of two-minute sketches for TV, Cottin has racked up an impressive list of film credits and has shown that she has range beyond comedy, with her turn as a no-nonsense detective in Iris proving how good she can be in a serious dramatic role.  While On a Magical Night certainly falls on the lighter side of drama and has some gently humorous moments, Cottin expertly brings out the pathos in her character, yet is always ready to utilise her impeccable comic timing when required.  But to focus exclusively on Cottin would be to do a disservice to Honoré and the rest of his fine cast, who have here created an atmospheric, intelligent and engaging work, one which could even be said to be rather - ahem - magical.

Darren Arnold