From the outset, you get the distinct impression that Erik Poppe’s new film is not going to be a picnic. A Thousand Times Good Night is Poppe’s fourth film, of which great things were expected, and he grabs your attention even before the opening credits have finished. Make no mistake about it, Popp wants you focused from the getgo and is not the slightest bit concerned about showing you difficult, uncomfortable imagery to convey that fact.
And we shouldn’t really be surprised. The subject matter is not funny, after all. The writer/director’s semi-autobiographical account represented here of the life of a war photographer is what we, the cossetted first world masses, can only assume is authentic. War is grim and harrowing, so taking photos that aim to capture its essence, up close and personal, won’t be any less so. Poppe’s visual style is arresting and confrontational with sparing warmth used only on occasion here but you are left in no doubt about the individual’s talent behind the camera. Opening on the preparations for an impending suicide bomber is a bold statement and sets a tone we were already expecting to be rife with a brutal, inflinching depiction of a reality that we rarely witness.
What is more telling about Poppe’s work here is the moments of pause. It is evident early on that the contrasting lifestyles between the vibrant and exuberant, albeit frightening and violent, world in which we are first introduced to our lead, Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) and the contemplative periods of peace in her Irish home with her family are polarised to such an extent, that you begin to see the emotional cracks very quickly, and as a character, there is a possiblility that the audience could become alienated from our lead, recognising a potential neglect of traditional familial values, for a seemingly more selfish pursuit of ambition and excitement. Like the lead herself, this radical change in lifestyle for the audience is jarring. As noble as the film would like to portray her profession to be, let’s not forget for a moment that she is not risking her life on a daily basis for charity, lest ye judge her too lightly.
In fact, it is the question of passion over pedestrianism that Poppe appears to be addressing as a whole. Whilst the film is littered with a cacophony of beautifully monstrous images and cinematography that often takes the breath away, the film decides against focusing its harsh lensing on the atrocious in favour of a far more personal tale of the strife caused by Rebecca’s personal and professional perceived duality of spirit.
The feminists amongst the audience will be sagely nodding their heads in agreement that Rebecca should be able to lead the life she chooses without having to compromise her passion, purely on the basis, if nothing else, that she is part of a group of people that have been stopped from doing exactly that, suffering their own oppression for centuries.
As an argument for this, Poppe’s film is not very compelling, often making Rebecca the butt of not only her own downfall, but of her family’s slow but seemingly inevitable implosion, but the film does at least highlight this very real plight faced by these alleged ‘have-nots’ every day. Rebecca’s particular case is an extreme example of the effect of a lob-sided work/life balance, but the question Poppe really seems to be asking is does it have to be balanced if that means not following your dreams and ambitions as completely as you are able, and to hell with the consequences?
Events in the film bring this question to a head during the second act and there will be a sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth from those same people that had previously been advocating Rebecca’s licence to creative freedom of expression, who may be heard muttering “almost, nearly had it there” before Poppe backtracks and folds his hand, apparently unable to win. Whilst Rebecca’s actions are admittedly foolhardy and thoughtless at times, as well as a selfishness we have already experienced potentially doing herself harm, she takes maybe one step too far, too often, for her family to accept.
A very powerful film from Poppe in his debut English language feature that will rasie a host of questions that have been debated before, but will take on a new resonance here, cajoling and coercing those individuals fighting their own battles for whatever freedoms they stand resolute for. Binoche is stunning, owning the character of Rebecca entirely and you may well forget that Juliette is even under there on occasion. With able support from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as initally patient but ultimately pushed to his wits end as her husband, this is heady acting chops indeed. Their children perform on a gradient of acceptable to precocious on the whole, but they are mostly merely nothing but foils of living, breathing guilt for a parent with abandonment issues.
In no hurry, the film ducks in just under two hours, but no shot is wasted. The vistas, often surrounded by a score of melancholy strings project a mostly despondent tone, in keeping with what is a depressingly realistic story. Delicately directed and performed, A Thousand Times Good Night is as much a simple story about the limit and struggle of one human as much as it is about the limits and struggles of humanity as a whole.