I mean, how could I not watch this? Chriophe Honoré’s previous film Sorry Angel has lingered with me since I first saw it nearly two years ago, and the premise of On a Magical Night sounded like a good time. Also: Hi Sebastién! Here, college professor Maria (Chiara Mastroianni) must reckon with her history of infidelity after her husband Richard (Benjamin Bouley) discovers that she’s been having an affair. Actually, as she confesses, she’s been having an affair with someone or another for most of their marriage, with Maria blithely assuming Richard was doing the same. Turns out he hasn’t, and faced with her own inability to compute his loyalty and unwillingness to talk to him while he’s angry, Maria slips out of their apartment and rents a room at the hotel across the street, planning on spending the night thinking about what to do next. This goes well for a couple minutes, until Maria realizes her room has an unexpected guest – Richard, spiriting around as a twenty-something version of himself now embodied by Vincent Lacoste.
It’s a great premise, one that advertisements suggest will be the first in a considerable line of previous lovers to haunt Maria over this long evening. Who doesn’t love a movie about an older woman reconsidering who she is and how she became this person, with a structure and tone pitching itself as a farcical, adultery-themed A Christmas Carol (Okay, that was glib). Maybe an Eternal Sunshine with multiple partners instead of one, even with the shared end goal of re-evaluating a prominent couplehood? It helps that Chiara Mastroianni’s Maria emerges as such a ripe characterization from the out. She’s a sexy, erudite figure, attuning herself marvelously to Honoré’s sense of humor. The character gets summed up pretty well in her first real scene, not just interrupting some girl’s whinging farewell to her boyfriend (who Maria just finished climbing like a tree) but critiquing the girl’s whinging technique as surefire man-repellent before leaving the guy’s dorm. She’s especially good at negotiating Maria’s sense of self-absorption, as when she seems genuinely surprised to learn her husband has never cheated on her. She’s so genuinely stunned to realize her presumptions of how her marriage works are wrong, – hell, how all marriages work – that it’s arguably a bigger reason for her fleeing her home than hurting her husband. In short, Mastroianni gifts the film with a strong sense of personality and plenty of room to explore who this woman is.
Mastroianni’s efforts are matched by Honoré’s own playfulness and gentle surrealism. Compared to his naturalistic style with Sorry Angel (the only of his films I have currently seen, though I hear nothing but good things about Love Songs), his lightness here feels like an unexpected treat. I also love that Maria’s apartment and the hotel are right by a movie theater, both as an evocation of Movie Magic and because it’s nice to be reminded about By the Grace of God (one of the best films I saw at CIFF!) and We the Animals. His direction sustains that tone beautifully for the whole runtime, though I wish I felt as excited about how he scripts this scenario. Maria’s remembrances with young Richard is a satisfying encounter that ends on a strong note, but rather than meeting up with a new lover, she wakes up to find a woman her age named Irène (Camille Cottin) lounging in a chair facing her bed. Someone her husband had described in passing as an old friend, Irène claims to have been his lover from the time he was her teacher in high school up until he married Maria. She also says she deeply regrets letting him go and intends to get him back while the iron is hot, something young Richard (who is still hanging around!) seems interested in watching play out. Maybe the metaphysics around her appearance never fully makes sense, though Cottin’s performance and the trajectory of Irène’s arc are rewarding enough that running with it felt fine.
What’s more dismaying is that Maria stops feeling like the primary engine driving her own movie. It’s not entirely clear why she isn’t more worried about Irène whisking away her husband, even if she’s still sunken in her own despair at realizing how badly her affairs have hurt him over the past 20 years. That epiphany comes when Maria’s dearly departed mother and grandmother come by, with mom listing off the lovers Maria has had since she got married and grandma declaring her to be the biggest slut in the family’s history. Which, hey, might be a negative depending on how you read it. What’s more disappointing is that this basically plays as the culmination of Maria’s arc. She realizes what she did was cruel to Richard, and mostly just sits and talks it out to Young Richard, who has his own questions for her. Lacoste doesn’t intrigue me to the degree he clearly fascinates Honoré, but even so, this feels like Honoré spinning his wheels while Irène and Present Richard have their own, better adventures. Meanwhile, the conceit of Maria’s other lovers is oddly underexplored, as over two-dozen guys start flitting around the hotel room about two-thirds into On a Magical Night but don’t contribute anything meaningful to the narrative. A different movie might devote its runtime to why Maria would keep seeking out fit, handsome, but otherwise racially and stylistically diverse men for the past twenty years, or explore if these men hold any other sexual or ideological significance to her, but Honoré doesn’t plumb for those insights.
While Maria’s section of the film starts to wane, Richard’s conversations with Irène quietly grow into its most interesting avenue. Both actors play off each other nicely, and there’s real momentum to Irène’s presentation of a life they could’ve had, and his weighing what he has now versus what very well might have been. Honoré’s tone here isn’t as whimsical as he is with Maria, but he knows how to throw in a couple surreal flourishes to give their hypotheticals some disarming impact. Ash falls from the ceiling onto Richard’s clean, white bed in a moment of despair. A child is made and unmade before he’s even named. Eventually Richard hangs out with a man he should probably be able to recognize, while Irène is strong-armed into her own journey of self-discovery in an even stranger locale.
For all the looping, unusual roads taken by On a Magical Night, I would not say the ending ultimately endeared me to its ambitions. The last few minutes wind up closing off the strange, albeit less plausible potentials suggested as a prelude to Maria and Richard’s last conversation in the film. Several character’s revelations are now compacted as part of one person’s subjectivity. And hey, maybe I wish we’d actually stuck to Maria’s POV the whole time, but if you’re gonna invest so much time into all three (four?) of the protagonists you’ve devised, you better make it count. What feels inventive about the film is undermined in its last moments by a conclusion that feels like a rejection of its most creative, far-reaching elements. I initially rough-drafted this review with more obvious ambivalence about the overall film, and there’s touches like a door flapping in delight that distills Honoré’s best, most charming impulses. I still crave a more interesting film than what we end up with, and a more rigorous showcase for Mastroianni’s charismatic performance, but what’s inventive and fresh here is good enough to make up for not sticking the landing.