Lenz leaves England and returns to Paris in search of Madeleine who disappeared in uncertain circumstances. He meets Helena, a nurse still struggling with the loss of her infant son. Thus begins a fevered love story set against a backdrop of sorrow, passion, jealousy and self-destruction.
Eloise Ross wrote:
In Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze observes that for writers Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, “language reaches its full significance when it acts directly on the senses”. The writers, from whose names blossomed the terms sadism and masochism, are interested in sexuality and carnality, in depicting sexual and power relations, in painting a world as erotic via an excess of sensory stimulation. For Deleuze, this fictional or projected world mirrors the world of reality by confronting and reflecting its own excesses.
Philippe Grandrieux’s fourth feature film—he also makes documentary and performance work—exists almost as an extension of this erotic world posed by Deleuze. Whether the audience likes it or not, Despite the Night (Malgré la Nuit) forces itself into a shared space, shaping itself in mutual existence with our world. Its world is the pornography industry, violent and sordid activity both portrayed and hinted at. Grandrieux is praised as a modern filmmaker attuned to the materiality of the world, his experimental style of visual and aural observations evoke a rich sensorial navigation of spaces and bodies. Despite the Night is no different in this sense yet it stands out amongst Grandrieux’s films in that it is an intimate melodrama about that most terrible and culturally romanticised ills — love and drug addiction. His obsession with darkness is such that a 2010 retrospective of his work in Boston was called “Night Visionary”. And while his images challenge the conventional structure and aesthetic set up of the cinematic form, each scene or segment fades to black, resetting his images in a continuum of darkness.
More or less, this is a tragic love story in three acts, with an extended—and devastating—conclusion. The film opens in silence, with images of a woman dancing in a dark space. Slowly, as conversations begin and depravity is unveiled, ambient sounds enter the realm, their absence and later restraint underpinning a sensation of violent discomfort. Everyone speaks softly, their voices menacing or unsure. The first 45 minutes of the film take place almost in total silence, with no music and only sporadic dialogue; instead, the template of silence is filled with abject aural resonances of bodily activity and, shockingly, the sound of wind. It’s a long while before the focus moves to an exterior space; with so much emotional and romantic intensity, the sense of claustrophobia is strong. The film does expand to the outside world, to a group of characters congregating in a park, looking over Paris, the Eiffel Tower standing unassumingly in the background. But this sense of fresh air is quickly taken away as interior and exterior darkness takes over once more.
Close up images of hands are bled through Despite the Night, evoking the referred sensation of touch but also, and quite powerfully, maintaining a clutch on the audience. A threesome sex scene features no faces, but three different skin tones, all entwined as one monstrous body. In Grandrieux’s film, the nude human body—male, female, old, young—is rarely, if ever, shown as a site of pleasure or desire, instead tinged with harshness. Discomforting bright lights reveal imperfections on skin, and everything has texture. Each time a hand relentlessly grabs at flesh, or clutches at the air around a body, Grandrieux pulls at the audience. Despite the Night is thus doubly involved with surfaces and sensation, depicting the act of touching along with the visualisation of it. One of the film’s most stunning sequences is a series of close ups of a household fish, painting it in pointed and then broader strokes. From extreme close ups, abstracting the crevices of its plated scales. In a few cuts, Grandrieux pulls back to menacing close ups of its tail, its body, as though another filmmaker might frame a predatory cat. These deep crevices in the surface of the fish become equated with the darkness in human wrinkles by immediate juxtaposition; no texture is less worthy of portrayal than another.
None of this is surprising for Grandrieux. However, his narrative offers less than his aesthetic (as often happens with his work) and Despite the Night almost becomes clogged down by itself. It is an enclosed portrait of a secluded Parisian scene and offers little beyond that. In sculpting a world underpinned by illicit activity and the thrall of desire, Grandrieux offers almost no sense of character outside of stated relationships. This tightens the structure of the film but at times makes it turgid. Discussions of love, emotions, sex, and desire, can sometimes seem bloated, although this intensity is, in many ways, used to support the other, more surface kind. In the opening moments, two lovers have a conversation: “Promise me that you will never scorn my love,” demands one, to which the other replies, “Promise me the same thing.” Neither of them promises anything.
As it stands, with such a devotion to the art of affect and the dual performance of the body and the camera, it is hard to devise Grandrieux’s true intentions; his subject matter is always rather harsh—and Despite the Night is no exception. At times, it recalls Claire Denis’ Bastards, in its raw depiction of sexual violence—or at least, the threat of it—and even in some of its visual iconography like the road. With only the most tedious characters, though, Grandrieux’s film lacks shape — it might be possible to grab it with our hands, but not so much with our emotions.
And still, the finale is a shocking one. It does not offer clarity, instead forcing the horror of an ambiguous conclusion; not in the resulting event, in the degradations that humans are subjected to — and capable of. Grandrieux’s second feature A New Life (La vie nouvelle) opens in diegetic silence, a score pulsating, echoing the sensations of a body trapped by fear or anxiety. A barely discernible image slowly reveals itself to be many faces, sitting as though part of an audience, watching something unseen. Their eyes are neither terrified nor fascinated, but frozen, eerily awaiting a climax. It’s as though they don’t want to know what they’re watching but cannot look away. Is Grandrieux suggesting that this audience is his own, that those eyes could belong to us? “Nothing fades, Lenz, even suffering,” Hélène (Ariane Labed) tells her lover in Despite the Night. Grandrieux evokes a sense of suffering with his cinema, but always to arouse thought. Days after viewing it I still have questions, there are still holes in my understanding; but there are flashes of this film that will stay with me, and perhaps these flashes are enough.