Thursday 1 June 2023

Three Nights a Week (Florent Gouëlou, 2022)

Florent Gouëlou's serviceable debut feature Three Nights a Week was selected to open the 2022 Venice Film Festival's Critics Week, a section that also included David Wagner's Eismayer, which, just like Gouëlou's film, focuses on a man who wishes to leave a heterosexual relationship for a homosexual one.  But unlike Wagner's film—which scooped the Grand Prize—Three Nights a Week was an out of competition title at Venice, and as such could enjoy its prestigious opening slot without the pressure that comes with vying for the spoils at one of the world's big three film festivals.  While there is little about Gouëlou's film that feels especially new, it is a well acted and handsomely photographed work, one that provides a generally engaging glimpse into the drag scene—a world the rookie director has firsthand experience of.  

Twentysomething Baptiste (Pablo Pauly) works as a manager at media retailer Fnac, but his real passion is photography.  Although the affable Baptiste and his long-term partner Samia (Hafsia Herzi) share a home, they see little of each other on account of their very different schedules; while Baptiste keeps regular working hours, Samia spends her nights volunteering at a sexual health clinic that provides help and advice to those on the city streets.  One evening, Baptiste tags along with Samia with the aim of taking a few pictures of the clinic's workers in action, and it is during this shift that he meets charismatic drag queen Cookie (Romain Eck).  Following this encounter, Baptiste is fascinated by both Cookie and the scene she inhabits, and he's inspired to undertake a photography project centring on this enticing nocturnal world.

As someone with no prior knowledge of drag, Baptiste is mesmerised by the performances served up by Cookie and her fellow artists.  Somewhat predictably, it isn't long before Baptiste's thoughts wander beyond the remit of his photography gig as he develops feelings for Cookie, which are reciprocated.  The fact that Baptiste is already in a relationship with Samia makes this arrangement less than ideal, and his situation is further complicated when the sun rises and Cookie changes into Quentin, the young man behind the drag act.  The confusion experienced by Baptiste forces him—and by extension the audience—to question who he's really attracted to: the person, or the persona?  Baptiste takes time off from his day job to document the progress of Cookie and her entourage as they travel to a competition that offers substantial prize money, and the dynamic between the photographer and Cookie/Quentin shifts further during this eventful road trip. 

Given Gouëlou's background as a drag artist, it should surprise no one to learn that Three Nights a Week feels like an authentic, warts-and-all representation of the scene on which it focuses.  So it is a pity that the story of Baptiste and Cookie plays out as something of a, er, cookie-cutter romance, and the convincing milieu created by Gouëlou is ill-served by a mostly rote script.  But Pauly and Eck are very good value in their roles, with both actors fully committed to depicting the tangled relationship that lies at the film's core, while the excellent Herzi—who has impressed in everything from Bertrand Bonello's House of Tolerance to Abdellatif Kechiche's Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno—quietly steals the show as the jilted Samia.  Phil Connell's 2020 film Jump, Darling provided a more satisfying, less obvious exploration of the drag scene, but the uneven Three Nights a Week has enough about it to suggest better things to come from Florent Gouëlou.

Darren Arnold