Thursday 18 June 2020

A room with a view: "On a Magical Night"

The career of the French writer-director Christophe Honoré may just constitute the biggest fakeout in 21st century cinema. Honoré first emerged amid the millenium's New Extreme Cinema with 2004's pretty joyless Ma Mère, which set permagrump Louis Garrel to sulking, smoking and shagging everyone up to - and, inevitably, including - maman Isabelle Huppert. Since then, however, Honoré has more often than not been found engaged in the manufacture of cinematic bonbons, turning out melancholy musical-dramas - such as 2007's Love Songs and 2011's Beloved - as if he'd been told he was actually the rightful heir to the late, great Jacques Demy. In his latest On a Magical Night, the songs remain largely non-diegetic, but once more - as the film's English-language title signals - we find Honoré in upbeat mode. Or at least as upbeat as anybody can be when making a light comedy about marital separation. 

The set-up initially owes less to Demy than Woody Allen (to whom Honoré gives thanks in the closing credits), and at a time when Allen has been reduced to limp impersonations of his earlier, funnier self (cf. the recent A Rainy Day in New York), there might be some comfort to be taken in watching someone else doing a half-decent Allen impersonation. Chiara Mastroianni plays Maria, a married history professor with a roving eye for younger men (including her own students) who, after having her infidelities rumbled, checks out of her swanky Montparnasse marital pad and into a hotel room across the road that affords her a view of her heartbroken hubby (Benjamin Biolay). The twist is that this is a magical hotel room, which - among its other amenities - offers our heroine new perspectives on her past and an opportunity to confront her demons in the form of a younger version of hubby (Vincent Lacoste), whom she finds both more attractive and more communicative than the weary fortysomething on the other side of the street. This opening up of parallel realities, roads not taken is très Demy - it owes a lot to a handful of lines at the end of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - although raising these possibilities in ironic tribute isn't quite the same as wearing your string theory next to the heart on your sleeve.

Elsewhere, your response is liable to be dictated by your immediate response to those three words "magical hotel room", which present as decidedly sugarcoated. (Told you Honoré was making bonbons, and that's before we get to the film's montage of half-eaten eclairs, abandoned in the quest for carnal knowledge.) You'll need to swallow them, and then go as matter-of-factly along with the ghosts' appearance as Maria herself does. If it helps, Mastroianni is giving the light-comic equivalent of John Cusack's performance in 1408, holding a throwaway premise together while sustaining viewer sympathies. It definitely helps that she remains stylish and charismatic in this task: I'm not sure whether Honoré has ever considered working with an icon of Juliette Binoche's standing, but this is absolutely the kind of role with which Binoche has been associated - though possibly it needed the clown in Mastroianni's genes to even half-sell us on that gaga premise. Certainly, the hotel-room scenes, which involve bedfuls of buff hunks and a passing Charles Aznavour impersonator, are more fun than the mopey business going on over on hubby's side of the street, where we observe Biolay, a sadsack Andy Serkis, settling like a well-worn beanbag into the fatherhood he's felt he's been denied. It's all fluff and nonsense, to be honest, and the ratio has long tipped in the latter's favour by the time of the slowed-down, John Lewis ad-bound rendition of "Could It Be Magic?" that rounds events off, but Paris - even as viewed from inside a hotel room that is also a magical hotel room - really does look lovely. There may be a degree of escapism for shut-in streamers here, if nothing much else.

On a Magical Night is available to stream via Curzon from tomorrow.

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