The opening night selection of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, “Nobody Wants the Night” provides a risible snapshot of the prevailing trends driving today’s international prestige picture. Globetrotting director Isabel Coixet teams with A-lister Juliette Binoche in this historical adventure yarn set in the Arctic, spun with themes of feminism, environmentalism and compassion for third world peoples. These high concept components probably play better on the white sheets of a co-production business proposal than they do on the snowy backdrop of the finished product; Coixet’s unfocused direction and Binoche’s grating performance waste little time sending this cinematic iditarod off-course.
Binoche plays Josephine Peary, a fearless high society woman who followed her legendary explorer husband Robert on his explorations through Arctic Greenland. The film compresses several years of their exploits into a single narrative involving her efforts to reach him on his 1908 attempt to finally set foot on the North Pole (in reality, she was back home on this particular excursion). From the opening scene of a polar bear hunt, Binoche attacks the role forcefully, portraying Josephine as a domineering, self-important blueblood who treats the Arctic as her personal playground. But there’s nothing offered to offset her callousness; Gabriel Byrne gives a meek counterpoint as a seasoned wayfarer who tries to redress her insolence, but he makes little impact on her or the story.
The film’s overall lack of cinematic focus doesn’t help matters. Coixet’s camera clangs between three irreconcilable modes: glamorous closeups of Binoche; wide shots of the snowy tundra a la Nat Geo landscape porn; and dialogue scenes filmed with shakycam meant to give this 100 year-old story an in-the-moment vitality. Brisk editing between these shots make them play like a photo stream, preventing the genuine atmosphere of the Arctic from setting in.
It’s only in the second half, when the heroine finds herself stranded at a remote outpost with no sign of her husband, that a genuine dramatic chill emerges. Josephine encounters Allaka, an Inuit woman played by Rinko Kikuchi in a role that could make her the laughingstock of Japan should the film end up distributed there. It takes a while to even recognize her dressed in the Inuit mouth and hand tattoos and smiling with brown teeth that mark her as an unkempt native. She’s here to perform the hapless Noble Savage role, using pidgin English to gently teach Binoche some lessons in cultural sensitivity, the ancient simple wisdom of the Inuit, and the virtues of eating raw dog meat: it’s as if Allaka is Josephine’s personal paleo lifestyle guru.
It’s to Kikuchi’s tremendous credit that she takes this howler of a role and infuses it with a genuineness not found elsewhere in the film. The earnestness with which she delivers lines like “Why Josephine woman look at me bad, with eyes like night?” or “Love is give each other” is strangely disarming. Almost singlehandedly she makes the second half of the film watchable and at times moving, as the two women form an unlikely bond in the face of an endless winter and ever-dwindling resources, before a dismaying finale meant to instill pangs of guilt among first world viewers.
The film’s co-production package, with Spain, France and Bulgaria as the primaries, suggests all sorts of logistical hurdles, including filming in Bulgaria and Norway as stand-ins for Greenland. The exotic location and period production design suggest that this is the most expensive production to date for the Spanish director Coixet, who’s made a prolific career of contemporary character studies with women protagonists set around the world.
This time Coixet may have bitten off more than she could chew, with the challenges of filming a historical adventure movie leaving her heroine sorely underdeveloped. Distribution outlook for this film will lean heavily on its setting’s icebound visual appeal and audiences’ susceptibility to Binoche’s star power, even in a bad turn.
“Nobody Wants the Night” opens the Berlin International Film Festival today. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.