Nobody Wants the Night
Opening this year’s Berlinale competition, Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s Nadie quiere la noche (Nobody Wants the Night) has a lot going for it: a ripping story, a great cast and stunning locations. Disappointingly, these parts don't coalesce to a whole.
The opening shot of snow masses crumbling into the sea is also the closing shot as Coixet returns to her theme of humans treading the wheel of existence. It serves here to introduce context and character: dominion over the world's remotest regions and the real-life character of Josephine Peary (Binoche), wife of explorer Robert, who followed him to the Canadian Artic after a prolonged absence in 1908, the year he subsequently claimed to have been first at the North Pole. Waiting at Ellesmere Island to set out in search of her husband, Josephine asserts herself against the sound advice of Bram (Byrne), a seasoned polar explorer. Accompanied by two Inuit, silverware and evening gowns as well as three sleds worth of provisions, they set off.
Act two maintains a fairly crisp pace as disaster befalls the team, but Josephine presses on to reach her husband’s second base camp. Waiting there is Allaka, Robert’s Inuit lover (Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi). The rest of the Inuit disperse to more favourable climes but Josephine and Allaka hunker down to await Robert’s return. As the artic winter sets in and survival looks increasingly unlikely, the two women are forced to transcend cultural, linguistic and personal hurdles and come increasingly to rely upon one another at a very basic level: accepting the dark night of humanity, where we face each other with nothing but the other, finding comfort in companionship in the face of mortality.
Act three, which takes up well over a third of the film, explores this process. And lengthily. Whilst Coixet’s skill at capturing the emotions of existential fear (Elegy, My Life Without Me) serves her well in creating intimacy, there are enough moments of inconsistency and intrusiveness to water down this essential crux. Some are brought on by a soundtrack that starts with dainty high register strings reflecting ecological fragility. It incorporates the polar opposites of Inuit song with recordings of Manon Lescaut on Josephine’s gramophone (unfortunately redolent of a well-known scene from Out of Africa) but then gives in to thunderous overstatement at moments of great tension. The script is also fickle: as Allaka, Kikuchi ‘s character is linguistically challenged but the actress can’t always pull of the kind of gesture and look that supplements limited communication – a failing that undermines Josephine’s growing admiration of her. Then there are instances when Allaka’s persona (and a propensity to show a lot of skin despite the severe cold) veers a little too strongly in the direction of the noble savage – always a stereotypical problem when civilizational rapacity faces off against ‘primitive’ innocence. Voice-overs from a man whose identity is revealed only at the end also distract by raising the issue of narrative authority.
Partly filmed in Norway, much of the landscape cinematography is truly stunning and makes use of every kind of camera angle to suggest both moral and physical isolation as well as the proximity of a (temporarily) shared destiny. Coixet has gone deep, really deep – but only periodically achieves the atmospheric synthesis of two women and two cultures for which she was evidently striving.
Nobody Wants the Night screens Feb 6, 12.00 (Friedrichstadt-Palast); Feb 6, 19.00 (Friedrichstadt-Palast); Feb 15, 13.00 (CinemaxX 7)