'Nobody Wants the Night': Berlin Review

Leandro Betancor
Less of a polar bear than a polar mongrel

Juliette Binoche and Rinko Kikuchi star in this frosty, inconsistent festival opener from Spanish director Isabel Coixet

Two women are stuck with each other as an Arctic winter approaches in Nobody Wants the Night (Nadie Quiere la Noche Aie), the latest film from Catalan director Isabel Coixet (Elegy, My Life Without Me). This English-language feature stars Juliette Binoche as Josephine Peary, the wife of Arctic explorer Robert Peary, and Rinko Kikuchi as a local Inuit woman she encounters while traveling to meet her husband as he tries to reach the geographic North Pole. Though Coixet often overreaches as she tries to imbue the story with a sense of epic grandeur, there are infrequent, more intimate moments that work because the actors share a convincing complicity. Not aided by the fact that the title sounds like a Lady Gaga B side, Nobody Wants the Night won't be an easy sell despite its relative star power and the fact that a Berlinale opening slot will guarantee a measure of press and buyer interest.

The most fascinating thing about the screenplay by Miguel Barros is its focus on a pair of women thrown together in the middle of nowhere during the winter of 1908-09. The two have to try and survive in impossible conditions — and that just refers to the harsh climate and lack of heat and food, not the revelations concerning something they have in common that might easily rip them apart.

It's a shame, then, that it takes the two-hour film almost 40 minutes to bring Binoche and Kikuchi together, with the opening reels dedicated to the first few legs of the trip by Peary and Bram (Gabriel Byrne, sporting an Inuit tattoo across his nose), a veteran explorer who'll take her to her husband. It's obvious from these early scenes that Josephine's an extremely headstrong woman who wants to join her hubby in the North Pole, despite all the dangers both locals and experienced explorers keep warning about.

You wouldn't guess from this film, which is "inspired by real characters," that Peary was a protofeminist who'd worked as a linguist at the Smithsonian before her marriage and many travels accompanying her husband. Here, she's a woman who insists on china and silverware for dinner and who's always impeccably dressed in often colorful (if heavy) finery, even when everyone around her more sensibly wears furs and skins to protect against the bitter cold (the costumes were designed by Clara Bilbao). That said, this choice does make for some pretty pictures and results in Josephine standing out against the vast whiteness of her surroundings, casting her even more obviously as a visiting stranger unequipped to handle what'll follow.

Once she reaches the base-camp cabin where her husband should be, the film finally is allowed to concentrate on the story between Josephine and "Allaka woman" (Kikuchi), the young local who also has decided to stay behind — for reasons that initially are not entirely clear — in an igloo nearby, despite the oncoming winter. As the weather keeps getting worse, food and coal begin to run out and there's still no sign of Robert, both women start to need each other more while Josephine starts to like Allaka less and less. Unfortunately, Barros and Coixet do too little with this dramatically fertile paradox, perhaps partially because Allaka's English isn't great, allowing only for basic communication between the women. Equally problematic is the fact that the scenes follow one another in a rather herky-jerky manner, lacking a clear emotional throughline that would keep audiences hooked.

There are too few instances where all of the film's different elements come together to deliver any kind of visceral charge. An exception is a scene that takes place right after Josephine first understands Allaka's motives for the first time; we see Binoche running out into the snow, crying, while composer Lucas Vidal's simple piano motif suggests her conflicting emotions, running the gamut from surprise to understanding and anger to sisterly comprehension and concern. If Binoche and Kikuchi (the latter boxed in by her character's limited dialogue) didn't have a generally convincing love-hate rapport, the film would have been a very cold affair indeed.

Technically, this Spanish-French-Bulgarian co-production, shot in Bulgaria, Norway and, for the interiors, the Spanish island of Tenerife, is a mixed bag. The production design by Alain Bainee (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) looks fine for the most part, while the slightly quivering work of Coixet's regular cinematographer, Jean Claude Larrieu, works great for the you-are-there dog-sleigh scenes but uses close-ups and wide shots in ways that don't always serve the drama — such as during a supposedly tense confrontation between Bram and Josephine. His evocation of the penumbral, bluish polar nights, however, is credible.

Some archive footage of avalanches and polar landscapes occasionally has some definition issues and isn't always integrated persuasively into the rest of the material. Something similar can be said about the film's handling of race and class issues, which has a distinctly 19th century flavor that helps give the material a Jack London/James Fenimore Cooper vibe but also undermines the idea that this is a modern, female-driven corrective to the work of those authors.

Production companies: Ariane & Garoe, Mediapro, Neo Art Producciones, Nadie Quiere La Noche, Noodles Production, One More Movie
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Rinko Kikuchi, Gabriely Byrne, Orto Ignatiussen, Matt Salinger, Ben Temple, Reed Brody, Alberto Jo Lee, Clarence Smith, Velizar Binev, Ciro Miro
Director: Isabel Coixet
Screenplay: Miguel Barros
Producers: Andres Santana, Jaume Roures
Executive producers: Andres Santana, Antonia Nava, Javier Mendez
Co-producers: Antonio Nava, Jerome Vidal, Ariel Illief, Dimitar Gochev
Director of photography: Jean Claude Larrieu
Production designer: Alain Bainee
Costume designer: Clara Bilbao
Editor: Elena Ruiz
Music: Lucas Vidal
Casting: Monika Mikkelsen
Sales: Elle Driver

No rating, 118 minutes

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