The Passengers of the Night review – Charlotte Gainsbourg hurts and heals in 1980s Paris | Movies


Mikhaël Hers has made a likably unassuming and easygoing movie set in 1980s Paris; a world of LPs and stonewashed denim, with TV news archive footage interspersed in the drama. We start with the celebrations that marked Mitterrand’s presidential victory in 1981 and end towards the end of the decade with the younger characters preparing to cast their first vote.

This is a film that doesn’t set out to push your emotional buttons all that hard, or even at all. But it covers a surprising amount of narrative ground and there is always something engaging and tender to it. The director appears to be aiming at the unshowy drama of Éric Rohmer. Three of his teen characters are shown sneaking into a cinema via the exit doors without paying, intending to see Joe Dante’s Gremlins but instead blundering into a screen showing Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris and being unexpectedly entranced by it. Later they are shocked to hear about its star, Pascale Ogier, dying at the age of 25.

Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Elisabeth, a woman recovering from breast cancer and divorce, living with her teenage son and daughter in a large, somewhat chaotic flat with a beautiful view across the city. Her husband, who is now renting somewhere else with his new girlfriend, will however eventually want to sell the flat and divide the cash as part of their divorce, something to add to Elisabeth’s uneasy new sense of rootlessness. (Husband and new girlfriend are never seen, and Hers’s unwillingness to absorb their existence into the film’s fabric is, I think, a flaw.)

Trying to get a job, she somehow lucks into a rather desirable position behind the scenes on an all-night phone-in radio show, putting callers through to the hardbitten presenter, in which role Emmanuelle Béart gives her most assured performance for a while. Elisabeth, after a while, even gets to fill on the mic when the star is on holiday, but there is no great importance attached to this: she doesn’t get to be a star and she is later shown getting a humble second job in a library to supplement her modest income. The plot is set in motion when Elisabeth takes an interest in the show’s special guest one evening: Talulah (Noée Abita) is a teen runaway, crashing on people’s floors, at risk of drug abuse. Elisabeth realises that no one on the show is interested in what happens to Talulah after the interview is over, so she invites her back to her flat. Talulah is to come and go in their lives for the next decade and toy with Elisabeth’s son’s heart.

Like Hers’s previous film Amanda, this is a calm, sympathetic drama about family in which the dramatic wattage level is set relatively low. Even when extravagantly tense things are happening – Elisabeth’s son falls into the Seine and Talulah jumps in to save him – things are determinedly kept under control. The point, as with Amanda, is healing: things coming together and working out and pain being smoothed away. Elisabeth realises how sad she is at her “empty nest” situation as the kids move out, especially as she has to sell her nest and move to a smaller one. But group hugs help salve the pain and there is something sweet-natured in the film’s positive attitude to life.

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