Film & TV

On a Magical Night: A Moral Sex Farce

Vincent Lacoste and Chiara Mastroianni in On a Magical Night (Strand Releasing)
Christophe Honoré’s erotic tragicomedy outshines Hollywood copycats and honors our cultural heritage.

Corrupt Hollywood now specializes in remakes and reboots and has convinced the public to accept this cheat as creativity. Meanwhile, Christophe Honoré counters that nonsense with his new film On a Magical Night (Chambre 212). An homage to French cinema’s most advanced romantic comedies, it is also a wholly original film. Through the infidelity of 40-year-old law professor Maria Mortemort (Chiara Mastroianni), Honoré explores the restless itch at the heart of so many Gallic moral tales. When her 40-year-old husband, Richard (Benjamin Biolay), discovers Maria’s dalliance with a younger student, the sparring couple separate into their corners: Maria takes a room in a hotel above a multiplex cinema, across the street from their chic apartment, where, like a philosophical voyeur, she can watch Richard seething.

This premise might immediately suggest Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but Honoré, who directed last year’s deeply moving Sorry Angel, is more interested in sex-farce complications. He showcases Maria’s guilt, not suspense. As snow falls on Maria and Richard’s separation, Honoré shifts into exquisite reflection: Maria recalls Richard at age 20 (played by Vincent Lacoste) whose lustful presence sets Honoré’s film off and running.

Longing, regret, and passion materialize through different personages from the past. Every surprise appearance unpacks Maria’s subconscious — her numerous ex-lovers and, most vexingly, Irene Haffner (Camille Cottin), the piano teacher who was Richard’s first lover when he was age 15. Tellingly, even the ghost of Charles Aznavour appears as, he says, Maria’s “will.” He tells her “My role is to strengthen your resolve. Someone else handles your conscience.”

Here’s where Honoré reveals his objective: to investigate our culturally inspired desires. Hollywood’s remake mania merely cashes in on already established markets, with pre-sold properties and titles. We don’t grow from such copy-cat-ism, which means that American cinema’s ideas about morality, mortality, and existence become infantilized or politicized.

Honoré breaks that Millennial pattern by satirizing Maria’s hypocrisy. Graying Richard at 40 reminds her of withered ardor; yet envious Richard at 20 reminds the errant professor of France’s Civil Code 212: “Spouses owe each other respect, fidelity, assistance.” Because both partners’ heads are full of thoughts, memories, and feelings, Honoré expresses them through ingenious visual tropes, intercutting Maria, the two Richards, Irene, and Aznavour. Overhead shots from room to room suggest existential blueprints, life’s floorplans where surprises are staged as in a classic sex farce.

These bravura effects are Honoré’s homage to Alain Resnais’s 2006 Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs). (And that drifting snowfall evokes the connection that critic John Demetry made between Resnais’s Coeurs and James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.”) Honoré also honors the great flowering of ingenuity and mastery seen in Resnais’s late career with such magnificent films as Wild Grass, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, and Life of Riley, while cinematographer Rémy Chevrin emulates their soft, glowing palette. It is the curse of contemporary film culture that prevented those ravishing movies from finding popularity (among recent cinema, only Zack Snyder’s films have shown comparable virtuosity).

Instead of simply remaking Resnais, Honoré revives the spirit of his high-art meditation. Maria, Richard 40, Richard 20, Irene 40, and Irene 60 (played by Carole Bouquet) function like A, X, M, the metaphysical game figures in Last Year at Marienbad. Honoré’s lagniappe comes when Maria explains her adultery: “He didn’t charm me, I charmed myself. Because of his name Asdrubal Electorat. The most erotic name I ever heard. My anthroponymic fantasies ruin me.”

That conceit is key to the open eroticism of On a Magical Night, which contrasts with Hollywood’s current asexual immorality. This heterosexual story shows Honoré acceding to moral tradition — to ethical argument, not fashionable politics about gender. Chiara Mastroianni, combing aspects of her parents Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve, makes an uncanny embodiment of that complex effort.

Consider: The strange apparition of Irene and young Richard’s imaginary love child contemplates procreation as fully as François Ozon’s Time to Leave. Richard 20, wearing blue sheets like a toga in a Racine play, disputes sexual ethics with the ghost of Aznavour. Bouquet’s Irene 60, “the lesbian by the sea,” evokes the ambiguity of Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire as well as her role in André Téchiné’s Unforgivables. Honoré’s films have always mixed sexual orientations. The way Maria humanizes rapacious gay male sexual prerogative shows that Honoré learns from his culture heritage rather than merely repeating and exploiting it. Through his artistic forebears, including a movie poster homage to Ozon’s By the Grace of God, Honoré builds an intelligent modern morality.

Honoré has also made movie-musicals (inspired by Jacques Demy), and though his Aznavour homage is brilliant, his only misstep in On a Magical Night is Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic,” which doesn’t quite have the summary strength to bring the film’s many ideas together (as Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” did for Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet). Honoré’s intellectual abundance becomes a jumble that perhaps only the Donna Summer–Giorgio Moroder cover version of “Could It Be Magic” could save. But then, the Summer-Moroder remake might have overwhelmed Honoré’s lovely conceit.

On a Magical Night is showing virtually at Film at Lincoln Center and other venues.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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