12 October 2013

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '13: A THOUSAND TIMES GOOD NIGHT (ERIK POPPE, NORWAY)

Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/14 & 10/16
World premiere: 31 August, 2013, Montréal World Film Festival

There is, at this time, violence and rapine afflicting various countries in Africa and central Asia that goes almost totally unremarked in the news media of the developed world and unnoticed by the inhabitants thereof, and for the most part, the governments of the developed world make not the smallest hint of an effort to do anything positive to change this situation. As far as that goes, I'm only stating fact. I will assume, though, that you'll agree with my opinion that this is an incredibly sad situation, because I will assume as well that you're not a colossal asshole.

It is, in other words, a very noble and necessary argument to make, that Westerners should and can do a great deal more to alleviate suffering in the developing world, and no two ways about it. I wonder, though, if it's possible to make that argument in a less effective, more self-negating way than Erik Poppe does in A Thousand Times Good Night, which finds the photographer-turned-commericial-maker-turned-feature-director making a fiction film about a crusading photojournalist, Rebecca Thomas (Juliette Binoche), whose desire to explode the comfort of the ignorant West with her fearless, in-depth reporting on the grueling life in the darkest places for humanity puts her in conflict with the needs of her family, who are terrified every time she leaves their cozy home in Dublin, that this is the time she's going to end up blown apart, butchered, or otherwise dead. The idea, I think, is that the film is telling us that one must make hard choices and that doing good for the world is a worthwhile goal that requires personal sacrifice. In practice, though, I think that the film's real argument is a much simpler one: political activist journalists should probably not have children.

Regardless of whether or not it's even telling the story it intends to, the film's failure at consciousness-raising goes deeper than its success at making Rebecca's husband, Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and their two daughters, Steph (Lauryn Canny) and Lisa (Adrianna Cramer Curtis), seem considerably more level-headed and reasonable than she is (though Curtis is such a shrilly over-enunciating young actor that nothing she says or does can truly be called "reasonable" in any global sense). There's no squaring the circle here, of saying that Rebecca is a brave fighter for the good and true, and showing that she's selfish and harmful to her family. It is, bluntly, a bourgeois art piece both aesthetically and morally, about how bourgeois attitudes are bad for humanity, which is, if not exactly "hypocritical" in any useful sense of that word, awfully self-defeating, and it leaves the film feeling polished and handsomely dull where it needs to be challenging and severe.

At one point, Rebecca gets word from her publisher that a series of photographs she took of a female Mujahideen suicide bomber preparing herself on the last morning of her life have been rejected after pressure from the U.S. government, which considers the pictures to be "glamorising" suicide bombing. And we are, of course, meant to understand that this is nonsense, that the point is to reveal a woman's desperate act and not to praise her determination, and that moments like these are part of the culture that insulates Americans and Europeans from having to consider the humanity of people living in Afghanistan. Well and good. Later, Rebecca and Steph are visiting a camp in Kenya, documenting the rough lives of dislocated refugees, and do you know what cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund's lush colors and graceful shadows, and composer Armand Amar's pensive, emotion-tugging music do to the wretched Africans? I will give you a hint. It starts with "glam" and ends with "fuck you Erik Poppe".

It's too bad, because there are pieces of the movie that work really well: the opening sequence is a terrific fake-out that sets up the suicide bomber's preparations so cleverly and inductively that it's actually hard not to gasp at the reveal when it finally comes: a funeral in which the corpse wakes up and climbs out of the grave, and minutes go be before we understand why, exactly, this was being staged before her death, minutes of delicious ambiguity and the exact kind of objective, journalistic remove from the material that is meant to be Rebecca's stock in trade. Binoche herself is quite good, though it's not always easy to tell with a role as floppily-written as this, with its scattershot interchange of motivations. Generally speaking, she attempts to play Rebecca as an alienating obsessive, which is probably the only choice that could be psychologically justified at all; and this helps to level off the movie as it trucks along to its weird hybrid of domestic drama and social issues piece.

It would take a lot more than that still to fix the movie though, and its oversized self-regard relative to the milquetoast way it approaches its message transcends any vague niceties of performance, which are limited to Binoche and Canny in any case. This is a lukewarm film across the board: foggily-expressed human drama sitting uncomfortably next to ineptly-argued social issues, and not a bit of it is truly memorable more than a few minutes after it's over.

5/10

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