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MONTREAL – An affecting drama made more poignant by honest-feeling autobiographical elements, Erik Poppe‘s A Thousand Times Goodnight examines the choice between family and career when that career represents work of real social importance. A standing ovation greeted Montreal’s world premiere of the film, which went on to earn the jury’s Special Grand Prix. Stateside, its art house appeal is strong, with Juliette Binoche‘s complex performance deserving particular attention.
Binoche plays Rebecca, a photojournalist whose work in conflict zones has made her (as one of the film’s rare bits of too-on-the-nose dialogue puts it) “one of the top five photographers out there.” We meet her in a transfixing opening sequence that establishes both the thorny ethical questions inherent in the character’s life and the way being good at her job is tied to being bad at self-preservation: Having made contacts within a Kabul-based militant group, she is allowed to document the haunting ceremony in which a woman makes herself spiritually ready for a suicide attack. Insisting on traveling with the bomber partway to her target, she winds up in the blast zone and is badly wounded.
(Poppe notes that Afghanistan’s first-ever incidence of a female suicide bomber occurred on the first day of production, eerily justifying a scene written much earlier.)
Rebecca is sent home to Dublin, where she’s welcomed by two charming daughters and husband, Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). When Marcus says he can no longer live with a woman whose career leaves him and the girls waiting for The Call, Rebecca decides to quit working in danger zones.
No one quite believes her, but in a sequence of encounters we see Rebecca work to settle into the small talk and parenting trivia of daily life. “I’m not good at life … being normal,” she admits. When her daughter Steph (Lauryn Canny) asks Mom to take her to Kenya, where an offer to photograph a refugee camp would dovetail with a school project on Africa, it’s clear that — even though her boss guarantees the trip will be 100 percent safe — Rebecca isn’t going to be able to keep her promise.
Poppe has himself been a war photographer (some of his work from the Congo appears here, as does a sad anecdote about that work being overshadowed in the media by Paris Hilton), and he and co-writer Harald Rosenlow Eeg make a fine case for the importance of going after the raw images of warfare and suffering. Binoche conveys how those ethical ideals aren’t the only thing in play: When confronted with danger, the actress becomes visibly single-minded, deaf to everything around her but the action. In one scene, her transformation is as unsettling as the violence she’s chronicling.
Poppe and Eeg ignore the most obvious argument suggested by Rebecca’s dilemma: that those called to this sort of work shouldn’t start families in the first place. But accepting that choice as given, they’re clear-eyed about the pain Rebecca causes those she loves — fully making the case for what she’s doing while dramatizing the ugliness of her failures at home. Though conversations with Rebecca’s New York editor are baldly designed to up the ante, they’re balanced by domestic scenes that have more chance to breathe.
Throughout, Poppe’s prior experience results in top-notch visuals. His thoughtfully selected images — both scenic and, in a heartbreaking instance of Steph turning the camera on her mother, dramatic — are perfectly captured by John Christian Rosenlund‘s camera.
Production Company: Paradox Film AS
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lauryn Canny, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Larry Mullen Jr., Mireille Darc, Adrianna Cramer Curtis, Mads Ousdal
Director: Erik Poppe
Screenwriter: Erik Poppe, Harald Rosenlow Eeg
Producers: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae
Director of photography: John Christian Rosenlund
Production designer: Eleanor Wood
Music: Armand Amar
Costume designer: Judith Williams
Editor: Sofia Lindgren
Sales: Global Screen
No rating, 117 minutes
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