As Shallow As a Man: ‘Night After Night’

Catherine Breillat’s films explore women’s relations to sex, more or less explicitly and with lots of talk. Night After Night (Tapage Nocturne or “nocturnal uproar”) was her second feature as a director and the first to be released. It might be assumed (dangerously) as semi-autobiographical because heroine Solange (Dominique Laffin) is a film director, so this is perhaps her 8 1/2 a few films early.

The scenario drops us into a series of snapshot-like scenes, first with Solange doing some work during the day. Very quickly we concentrate entirely on her nightlife, which consists of a series of interludes in bed with various men. There’s an American star (Joe Dallesandro, wasted, as he always seemed to be), a pop singer (Bruno Grimaldi), and a lumpen kind of sugar daddy (Daniel Langlet). Mostly there’s another French filmmaker (Bertrand Bonvoisin) who becomes her object of obsession for a while. He and his wife seem to be playing a game with Solange.

She talks constantly but as she says a couple of times, she just speaks without knowing what she’s saying, and in this way she finds out what she thinks. She’s attempting to be intelligent and profound (something she also admits frankly a couple of times), and she’s annoyed and intrigued when a man tries to be more intelligent as her. All of the relations seem to be based on gamesmanship. We gather all this talk and sex is an exercise in wasted time and energy.

In other words, Breillat isn’t exactly celebrating the idea that a woman can be as shallow and promiscuous as men are allowed to be; she’s simply observing it and finding it no more constructive. It’s not especially destructive either, just a signal of being adrift and self-absorbed, as though part of an insular lifestyle in a declining culture that’s still trying to create art. Her days are busy with the stuff of being a filmmaker, but we have no clue what film or art means to her, only that it’s something to do while hanging with bohemians and dropping into clubs (disco music provided by Serge Gainsbourg).

These are subtle implications, mostly conveyed through Solange’s deadpan narration that places all this in the past, and which finally presents this whole film anthropologically as a typical example. “Crying usually lasts 24 hours” she says after it’s over, as the image freeze-frames on that poetic standby, startled pigeons. The opening had presented the credits in a dialogue balloon pointing to Solange’s mouth as she sat in a cafe looking into the camera–another sign that this may all be intended as ironic comedy.

Breillat has often been criticized for sexual content, but she might be criticized less if she presented it as part of an attractive fantasy, and her “failure” to do this is possibly her most transgressive gesture. She’s also criticized for being dull, of course, although one must admit there’s even a method to her dullness. She seems to be admitting that there’s something enervating about desire, and that intellectualism is another cover for the emptiness and lassitude. Rarely are her sexual encounters galvanizing or catalysing for their participants, although something’s going on in Anatomy of Hell.

Much of this movie is dark and grainy as hell, as though shot in natural light. Laffin is occasionally seen nude, but nothing here is as graphic as she’d get with Romance, or even as graphic as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, in which Briellat appeared. Those looking for a hot show will be disappointed, and you must have a particular interest in Breillat or the adolescent immaturities of l’amour fou. Since this is a dominant French genre, and the other is bittersweet autobiographical memoirs of childhood, one must wonder how the French developed their reputation for making movies about grown-ups.

RATING 4 / 10