A zesty palate cleanser of sorts after his wrenching “Sorry Angel” — but in some ways a much weightier film than writer-director Christophe Honoré has left himself the strength to carry — “On a Magical Night” is a fanciful tale of marriage and its malcontents; a muted sex farce that unfolds like an overwhelmingly French twist on “A Christmas Carol” for people who are sick of their spouses.
Honoré says he was desperate to film Chiara Mastroianni’s “anxious forehead and ironic dimples,” so he cast the French actress as Maria, a historian in her late 40s who’s having a clandestine (but rather unapologetic) affair with a twentysomething student whose name sounds like an anagram for sexual misadventure: Asdrubal Electorat. Maria finds that kinda funny; her devout and tender husband Richard (Benjamin Biolay) does not. He boots her from their Paris apartment shortly after the truth comes out, forcing Maria to spend the night in the hotel across the street. But she won’t be spending the night alone — not when there’s a blithe spirit in the air, and papery white flakes begin to twirl from above as if Maria’s love life were a snow globe that’s been turned upside down. In fact, a handsome young man is already waiting for her in room 212: It’s a 25-year-old version of Richard (“Sorry Angel” star Vincent Lacoste), and he’s just as horny for her as he was on the day they met.
And so begins a playful but melancholy lark about what it means for two people to spend their lives together. The older Richard laments that “Love is always built on a memory, a place chosen together,” the cuckolded teddy bear paraphrasing “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” as he’s forced to confront what happens when that memory starts to fade. If sex is an expression of the present, marriage is an echo of the past, and most of us tend to become a bit hard of hearing as we grow older. If their childless relationship has any kind of future, Richard and Maria will both have to make peace with the fact that marrying someone means marrying all of the people they’ve ever been or will become — and also all of the people they carry with them in their hearts (read: everyone they’ve ever banged).
But how is it realistic for someone to accept that risk when life only happens to them once? How are we supposed to swear by the choices we make today when we have no reliable way of predicting which decisions will make us happy tomorrow? In lieu of clear answers, “On a Magical Night” offers new perspective on both sides of the street, as Maria enjoys a carnal tryst with her husband’s virile young shadow and Richard is visited by a vision of Irène (Camille Cottin), the piano teacher with whom he shared an inappropriate — and possibly criminal? — mutual infatuation during his formative years (“All boys dream of having a piano teacher” is such an exquisitely French line of dialogue that it makes you wish the subtitles had subtitles of their own).
From there, Honoré’s ever-accelerating fantasy welcomes Maria’s dead but eternally displeased mother (“How can you say Richard was the man you needed when you needed so many more?”), her even deader grandmother, all of the former lovers our heroine can fit inside a hotel room, glimpses from an alternate future, and even the smooth stylings of Barry Manilow. Anything can happen in an enchanted movie so liberated by the artifice its medium allows — a movie that’s in an open relationship with its various influences, and looks for its own tone between the wry domesticity of “The Awful Truth” and the diorama-like melodrama of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” in much the same way that Maria tries to hear herself amidst all of the competing voices in her head. Maria and Richard live above an adorable Parisian cinema, and their marital crisis feels like it was made for one of those screens even before Honoré underlines the effect with adorable miniatures and undisguised soundstages.
If “On a Magical Night” still feels too restrained — it’s best when it surrenders to the whimsy of its premise, but often is so busy articulating its ideas that it misses the fun of bringing them to life — perhaps that’s because it’s much easier to search for self-acceptance than it is to find it. With the exception of “Sorry Angel,” Honoré tends to be a more grounded and engaging filmmaker when he’s mired in fantasy, and his chatty new movie loses its spark whenever it stops to explain itself. The cast is game enough to make this work (all of the performances are strong enough, even if the movie is only sustained by the residual fun of making it), but their characters are never more interesting than the fantasy that brings them together.
But it’s one hell of a fantasy. Picking up where “A Woman Is a Woman” left off, “On a Magical Night” explores the idea that a woman is also many women, and possibly a number of others as well. “I’m a countless number of men,” Maria declares at one point, and Richard could say the same. This diverting little chanson of a movie ends on a redemptively lyrical note that reverberates long after its over. It’s a fading, unfinished note that says: We’re always on the cusp of becoming someone else, but it can be nice to have someone who won’t let you forget who you’ve been.
“On a Magical Night” will be available as a virtual cinema release from Strand Releasing on Friday, May 8