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Imagine 28 Days Later without the action, The Walking Dead without the ensemble cast or [Rec] without the video camera and white-knuckle suspense, and you’ll get an inkling of what goes on in The Night Eats the World (La Nuit a devore le monde).
A minimalist art house zombie movie set almost entirely inside a Paris apartment building, this debut feature from director Dominique Rocher has some clever ideas and well-crafted moments, but in terms of horror fodder, it’s so pared down you’ll practically miss it if you blink. Still, it probably deserves a lower-case “z” for “zeal,” taking the subgenre to a place it hasn’t quite gone before. After an international premiere in Rotterdam and a small rollout in France, the film should find its way to midnight screenings and VOD platforms, with chances for niche theatrical in a few markets.
Starring Oslo, August 31st lead Anders Danielsen Lie, the scenario — written by Rocher, Guillaume Lemans and Jeremie Guez, from a novel by Pit Agarmen — follows forlorn Franco-Norwegian musician Sam, whom we first see heading to a party at the flat of his ex-girlfriend (Sigrid Bouaziz). Isolated and bitter, he gets way too drunk and winds up in a room at the back of the apartment, where he locks the door and passes out.
Little does he know that while he’s sleeping, a massive plague has swept through Paris, leaving the city overrun by hordes of the undead. These French zombies pretty much follow the usual protocol: They’re attracted to sound or movement, they spend a lot of time jittering in place and they’ll so much as eat you alive if you dare to cross their path or look them in the eye. (The latter sort of makes them sound like real Parisians — except the zombies here actually seem nicer.)
The rest of the movie offers a very, very low-key take on the lone-survivor horror story, with Sam grabbing a shotgun and boarding himself up inside the building until…well, he’s not exactly sure what he’s waiting for, but staying indoors is surely better than heading outside and running the risk of becoming foie gras for another flesh-eater.
Rocher devotes lots of screen time to chronicle the mundane aspects of Sam’s existence. We watch how he rations dry goods to eat, collects rainwater on the rooftop and makes the rounds of the other apartments in the hopes of finding the bare necessities to stay alive. He never tries to make contact with the outside world, nor does he try to figure out why all of this is happening. But he does find the time to play punk songs on a drum set, compose avant-garde musical pieces with toys and dishware and listen to childhood cassette tapes that he picked up in a box at his ex’s.
These are not really the things you want to see someone doing in a zombie flick — you want to try to see them looking for other humans or running for their lives. In that sense, you’ve got to give the filmmakers some credit for eschewing the predictable gory antics in favor of something more artsy and contemplative.
But the problem is that The Night Eats the World steers so far into the quotidian of its hero that it can become quite frustrating, and even rather dull, to sit through. The threat of death doesn’t become as tangible as it should, and the suspense wears itself too thin. Meanwhile, whatever inner demons Sam seems to be fighting while he remains holed up are never made apparent enough.
A welcome twist at the midway point brings a girl, Sarah (Golshifteh Farahani), into the picture, and Rocher has a rather smart way of rounding out that plotline. There are also some amusing scenes involving a zombie whom Sam locks in the elevator and eventually befriends, confessing to the monster during daily cigar-puffing sessions. (The zombie is played by the great Denis Lavant, who seems to have been born for such a role, conveying emotion through his severely distorted facial expressions.)
But as a “tweener,” which is what producers call these kinds of movies, The Night Eats the World indeed falls in between being either a gory nail-biter or something much deeper. That’s unfortunate, because the film is technically very proficient — kudos to production designer Sidney Dubois for artfully messing up all those fabulous Paris apartments — and has the gall to try something outside the known confines of the genre. Yet it ultimately feels too anticlimactic and lethargic. One walks away with the impression of having watched a dude mope around his living room, facing an existential crisis while the apocalypse wages on outside. How very French.
Production company: Haut et Court
Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Golshifteh Farahani, Denis Lavant, Sigrid Bouaziz
Director: Dominique Rocher
Screenwriters: Guillaume Lemans, Jeremie Guez, Dominique Rocher, based on the novel La Nuit a devore le monde by Pit Agarmen
Producer: Carole Scotta
Executive producer: Julie Billy
Director of photography: Jordane Chouzenoux
Production designer: Sidney Dubois
Costume designer: Caroline Spieth
Editor: Isabelle Manquillet
Composer: David Gubitsch
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