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Passagiere der Nacht / The Passengers of the Night

Director: Mikhaël Hers (France). Year of Release: 2022

10 May, 1981. A young woman is in the Paris Metro pressing the button which lights up each train line. From outside the station, we hear people chanting “Mitterand a gagné” – Mitterand has won the election. Delighted people stream into the streets, stopping cars and giving roses to the passengers. The next morning, 4am, an insomniac woman is listening to a phone in “Passengers of the Night”. The host is asking callers to share their experiences of the historic evening.

Cut to 1984. Lloyd Cole’s Rattlesnakes is playing on the soundtrack, so it’s difficult to feel too depressed. And yet when we see the insomniac from the opening scene, we realise that not everyone is feeling great. Elisabeth’s husband has just moved in with his new girlfriend. For the time being, Elisabeth and her two teenage children can stay in the house, but he’ll soon sell up and they’ll have to move out. For the first time in her life, Elisabeth is compelled to find a job.

When Elisabeth is offered something, she’s sacked on the first day after forgetting to save the file where she’d put all her work. Then fortune strikes. It seems that Elisabeth had sent a letter to Passengers of the Night pouring her heart out. The programme’s host Vanda takes a shine to Elisabeth and offers her a job answering the phones. The pay isn’t great, but Elisabeth appreciates the opportunity to actually work and talk with other people.

On Elisabeth’s first day, there’s a studio guest called Talulah. Talulah says she’s 18, and has run away from home in St Malo. She prefers not to talk about her parents. She sleeps where she can – in cheap hotels or squats. When Elisabeth leaves the studio, she sees Talulah outside in the cold with her blue rucksack, sitting on a bench waiting for a nearby café to open. Elisabeth takes pity on the young woman and offers her a bed in the box room that her ex-husband used to use as a study.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth’s kids are coping with adolescence and their last years of school. Daughter Judith is inspired by the hope of political activism in Mitterand’s France, but her part is underwritten, so we see little of what this means. Son Mathias has aspirations to be a poet, but isn’t doing well at school because he can’t concentrate in lessons. But he does have a crush on one of the girls with whom he shares a first kiss.

Then one night, Talulah and Mathias go out to a bar on the canal. He is bemused that the people there know her but call her Christine. As she takes offence at him repeating that name, he falls into the Seine and she dives in after him. They go home to dry off, one thing leads to another and they end up sleeping together. Just before they fuck, Talulah tells him that she’s wrong for him. The next morning, her room is empty and she has disappeared.

Flash forward 4 years. Elisabeth is still working on the radio show, but has a second job working in the library. One day, a persistent customer asks her out, and she starts a low-level relationship. She visits Judith’s new shared flat, and it suddenly sinks in that her daughter has flown the nest. Then Talulah turns up on their doorstep with her blue rucksack. Talulah is in a bit of a state. She shares glances with Mathias, although their respective looks are necessarily saying the same thing.

I am not sure whether or not this review is full of plot spoilers. Nothing else much happens in the film, either dramatically or emotionally. But this is a film where the mood seems to be more important than the content. We spend some time watching the development of a fairly interesting family and their house guest, and in the end they have a group hug, and the final credits roll. Which, with the exception of the group hug, is perfectly fine.

The film has three writers – 2 female, 1 male – which might account for the fact that we see the story through the POV of both Elisabeth and Mathias. These stories should be equally balanced, but we have a problem with the acting. As usual, Charlotte Gainsbourg is compelling as Elisabeth, and we are drawn into her battle to regain control of her life. But whoever it is who’s playing Mathias is just too bland. We see things through his eyes, without really feeling much sympathy.

This does have one benefit. From the moment she appears, it looks highly likely that Talulah will turn out to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This is almost certainly how Mathias sees her. Seen purely through Mathias’s eyes, the film’s plot consists of him trying to save her from self-loathing and occasional drug abuse. But Talulah is much cooler than Mathias. When he’s doing whatever it is he thinks poets do, she’s listening to Television. She is more interesting than his version of her.

What does it all add up to? Nothing much, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Every so often, something appears on the edge of the film which fills us with anticipation that something interesting will happen. It doesn’t. This starts with the opening scenes of Mitterand’s victory, but includes casual references to Elisabeth’s breast cancer, and Talulah’s addiction. You think that these are going to develop into serious storylines, but they are barely mentioned again.

It is the director’s and screen writers’ privilege to play with us like this. There are enough films out there which consist of too much action and not enough thought. And yet you do feel that the film is somehow insubstantial. What’s there is well worth seeing, but you do feel that something is missing.

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