There’s something about French films. The impeccably styled but lived-in interiors, the laid-back sensuality that feels like real-people sex, the cigarettes upon cigarettes upon cigarettes. The country’s entire oeuvre (has the word ever been more apropos?) feels like a smoky exhalation of the words “le cinéma.” That said, French films get away with certain things American films wouldn’t dare, for better or for worse. In “The Passengers of the Night” (“Les passagers de la nuit”), which stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as a newly divorced mother, meaning takes a backseat to mood, and character development happens on a whim. Still, the disparate parts look so lovely together that in the end it doesn’t matter if they don’t all add up. How very French.
The film opens on election night in 1981. As the winds of change sweep the streets of Paris, bursting with youthful optimism, Elisabeth (Gainsbourg) is on the precipice of a less welcome change. Her marriage over, and she is filled with uncertainty about how to support her two teenage kids, shy poet Matthias (Quito Rayon-Richter) and political Judith (Megan Northam). Luckily, she can stay in their shared flat, an enviably gorgeous high-rise decorated in heaping brown velvet couches and rich reds, its crown jewel a dramatic windowed corner that seems explicitly built for smoking and gazing. With its focus on daily domestic life, a large portion of the film takes place in the apartment, the site of the family’s intimacy and disfunction.
Elisabeth secures a job running the phone lines for her favorite late-night radio show, a more sophisticated Delilah-type program, hosted by a no-nonsense woman in a power vest named Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart). Tasked with screening the potential heartsick, Elisabeth brings in a teen runaway for a live interview. When she sees the delicate Talulah (Noée Abita) huddled on a bench in the cold afterwards, she invites the charming vagabond home to stay for a few nights. Though the kids are initially skeptical of the outsider, Talulah quickly wins them over with her free spirit, sneaking the trio into the movies with an impish glint in her wide eyes. Naturally, Mattias is most drawn to the charming girl his mother has plopped into their home, and quickly loses interest in a chaste school romance.
Written by director Mikhaël Hers (“Amanda”) with Maud Ameline and Mariette Désert, the story often feels split between Elisabeth and Matthias. Over the course of the film, which takes place over several years, we see Elisabeth gently unfurl from sniffling, scorned woman into self-sufficient working mother. At the same time, Matthias grows from moody teenager to confident writer, with the fantasy of the elusive Talulah haunting him.
Mother and son’s erotic explorations run parallel to each other in somewhat amusing ways, but other than that their narratives feel disjointed. As the most vivid character, Elisabeth feels like the natural focal point, and not just because Gainsbourg is so effortlessly compelling to watch. The film’s greatest achievement is the measured and elegant gaze on a woman in the prime of life, often referred to as middle age, whose desires (both sexual and professional) are neither diminished nor pathologized.
Her concerns about Matthias (“I find him so disconcerting,” she tells her father. “He’s so secretive”) offer enough insight into his character. He’s most interesting as an obstacle for her; all parents can relate to Elisabeth struggling to connect with her maturing son as he changes in front of her eyes. But by the time the film reaches 1988, it’s hard to care about his rejection letters, especially when Elisabeth finally meets a suitable lover at her library job.
With its stunning production design and nostalgic but stylish ’80s costumes, “The Passengers of the Night” is a gorgeous invitation to slow down and take it all in before life passes by. Like a cinematic meditation, the minutiae of life are rendered achingly gorgeous under Hers’ careful direction. The romance of a vintage radio studio; the asymmetry of a single scarred breast; the red wine buzz of a plume of smoke floating through golden light. These are the moments that make a life, as well as the people along the way who stumble into it. They may disappoint as much as they inspire, and you may regret as much as you discover. In the end, we’re all just passengers in the night, tuning into a soothing voice on the radio, hoping for connection.
“The Passengers in the Night” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. It is seeking international distribution.