'On a Magical Night' ('Chambre 212'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A frothy French farce that runs out of fizz.

Christophe Honore’s bittersweet comic fantasy stars Chiara Mastroianni as a highly sexed college lecturer weighing up the steep cost of loving.

As we hit the midway point of the Cannes film festival, the collective hunger for a frothy French farce to serve as a mental palate cleanser has never been more urgent. Right on cue, here comes Christophe Honore’s lively bed-hopping rom-com On a Magical Night, promising to lift our weary mid-fest spirits with its sugary chanson-heavy soundtrack and attractive cast of oversexed bourgeois Parisians cheating on each other in discreetly overpriced knitwear.

Honore’s sixth Cannes premiere is rooted in a witty fairy-tale premise: if your middle-aged self could rewind several decades and rediscover your future spouse in their youthful prime, would you still choose to stay with them, knowing how jaded you will both feel about each other years later? This is an inspired springboard into screwball comedy and counterfactual fantasy, even if Honore gets a little too lost in his own muddled plot machinations.

Featuring a handsome cast of French screen royalty, headlined by Chiara Mastroianni on superbly haughty diva form, On a Magical Night should enjoy brisk business on its domestic release in late October. Honore’s whimsical comic romp may prove a little too stereotypically French to create much buzz internationally, though the cute central conceit has solid Hollywood remake potential.

Films about long-married couples shaken by midlife infidelity are commonplace. The slightly novel twist with On a Magical Night is that the unfaithful partner is female, glamorous college law lecturer Maria (Mastroianni), while the wronged spouse is her trusting husband of 20 years, Richard (Benjamin Biolay). Returning home to their Paris apartment after ending her latest casual affair with a hunky young student, Maria unwittingly reveals her long history of flings to Richard. While she shrugs off extramarital sex as meaningless fun, he is devastated.

As Richard ponders whether their marriage can even survive, an exasperated Maria packs her bag, leaves the apartment and checks into the hotel across the street. There, as a magical blanket of snow falls outside, she is visited by a series of ghostly echoes from her past, including her dead mother, a guardian angel who doubles as a Charles Aznavour impersonator, numerous ex-lovers and the 25-year-old version of Richard (Vincent Lacoste) that she fell in love with decades before.

Over the course of this midwinter night’s dream, Maria and her guests fiercely debate the struggle between sacred marriage vows and selfish desire, ruminate on their shared regrets and experiment with reversing the life-changing choices they made decades before. This being a French farce, Maria inevitably jumps into bed with the younger Richard, too, telling herself this is not exactly infidelity. At times On a Magical Night almost feels like a soft-porn version of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, only not quite as thrillingly kinky as that sounds.

Breezy and bright, with the stylized look and feel of a stage play, Honore’s bubbly bottle of cinematic champagne runs out of fizz somewhere around its midway point. Even so, there are still enjoyably shallow pleasures to be savored here, including veiled homages to beloved movies like It Happened One Night and It’s A Wonderful Life. The fact that Mastroianni and Biolay are former romantic partners in real life adds to the audience-nudging meta-textual mischief.

After revving up all this cheerfully polyamorous anarchy, it appears Honore does not quite know how to bring his story to a satisfying climax. Instead he gathers all the main players in a bar called Rosebud, a winking allusion to Citizen Kane, where Maria and her army of lovers, including both versions of Richard, dance away the heartache to slushy Barry Manilow songs. And that seems to be the take-home message of this light-headed soufflé of a movie. Love is hard work, trust is treacherous, sex is dangerous. But Barry Manilow makes everything all right. In these dark and dangerous times, there is a perverse kind of comfort in such a patently dumb notion.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Scope Pictures, Bidibul Productions
Cast: Chiara Mastroianni, Benjamin Biolay, Vincent Lacoste, Camille Cottin, Carole Bouquet
Director-screenwriter: Christophe Honore
Producers: David Thion, Philippe Martin
Cinematographer: Remy Chevrin
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Production designer: Stephane Taillasson
Sales company: Charades, Paris
90 minutes