'Night Song' ('Mobile etoile'): Film Review

Night Song Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Zootrope Films
Frequently fascinating, though unevenly told.

French-Israeli director Raphael Nadjari ('The Shade,' 'Tehilim') casts Geraldine Pailhas and Luc Picard as a French singer and her French-Canadian concert-pianist husband.

A French soprano, a French-Canadian pianist and their violinist son struggle with both everyday problems and more artistic and intellectual matters in Night Song (Mobile etoile), a cerebral family drama from French-Israeli director Raphael Nadjari (Tehilim, A Strange Course of Events). This tight family unit, based in Montreal, packs in a few more singers for their performances of Jewish liturgical music that’s between a century and two centuries old, a specialization that gives the movie a fascinating backdrop but that at the same time limits its audience, since Nadjari never manages to suggest what’s so special or different about this particular strand of music for the lay viewer. That said, it’s a well-performed film that, despite its focus on sacred music, has a surprisingly earthy flair, which perfectly matches Nadjari’s visual palette of earthen tones. Smaller festivals and highbrow VOD outlets are the likeliest takers.

Hannah Hermann (Geraldine Pailhas) is a French soprano who lives in Quebec with her French-Canadian husband, Daniel Dussault (Luc Picard), and their talented teenage offspring, David (Alexandre Sheasby). Their group, Les Cantiques (“The Canticles”), performs Jewish liturgical music from France that’s rarely performed or has been completely forgotten about, such as the piece from French-Jewish composer Fernand Helphen that gives the film its title.

They work with some other singers, including a frazzled but friendly yoga instructor (Felicia Shulman), who also helps out the Dussault-Hermanns when they’re thrown out of their rehearsal space, and the young discovery Abigail (Eleonore Lagace), who has the voice and face of an angel but the impertinence of a moody teenager. Even the janitor of the building where they rehearse (Raymond Cloutier) is recruited when they need another male voice.

Roughly the first half of the film offers a look at the energy required to simply keep the Cantiques afloat, as they have to keep applying for grants; they audition for a school board in the hopes of getting to perform an operatic work for children there, and they try to fit in the new singers when their well-off mezzosoprano (and occasional patron) moves abroad. Reminiscent of works such as Robert Altman’s The Company and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, Night Song exposes the tough day-to-day of people involved in the arts not at the very top or very bottom but somewhere in the middle, where artists struggle to reconcile their private lives and personal problems with endless rehearsals and never-ending funding difficulties.

Things become more dynamic and philosophical with the introduction of Samuel (Paul Kunigis), Hannah’s imperious former music teacher. He’s been researching and restoring a piece of sacred music thought lost. His first few appearances, in dusty European archives, are almost entirely disconnected from what happens in Montreal and Nadjari, co-writer Vincent Poymiro and editor Elric Robichon never manage to successfully tie these early scenes into the main story.

But as soon as Samuel sets foot in Montreal, things go haywire as he insists “his” sacred song be sung in the only right way — i.e., the way he thinks it used to be sung — while young Abigail feels the potential beauty of the piece and her own joy while singing it are at least as important, so she’d like to add variations. Hannah and Daniel are forced to choose sides in this debate, which explores in a more general way artists’ age-old struggle to figure out where they stand and how they deal with performing something from another era. And refreshingly, the fact the music is sacred is but a very small part of the conversation here. As one of the characters points out, the adoption of religious music by the non-religious, classical establishment has, in some cases, allowed it to survive.

The pic stays closest to Hannah, an iron-willed perfectionist with strong ties to Samuel who also needs to keep the Cantiques together to survive financially and must try to also be a mother and spouse at the same time. Frequently underused, Pailhas (Jeune & Jolie, Don Juan DeMarco) is breathtaking in what’s clearly one of the most complex roles of her career. Quebec veteran Picard is also touching, especially in the scenes with his aging father (Marcel Sabourin), who taught him how to play the piano. And as Abigail, Lagace also leaves her mark as the talented ingenue. Lagace’s real-life mother, Quebec star soprano Natalie Choquette, not only provided Hannah’s singing voice but has a small (non-singing) role as Abigail’s mother, a part that feels slightly and inorganically expanded to give the star something to do.  

Composer Jerome Lemonier had the thankless task of not only arranging all the music that’s played and sung in the movie — showcased in scenes that frequently run too long, almost as if this were a concert film — but also writing his own score that competes directly with the work of all those masters from over 100 years ago. That said, his relatively straightforward but soulful work helps to pull all the various parts of Night Song together, turning the occasionally somewhat frayed narrative into something more of a piece.

Production companies: The French Connection, EMA Films, Sister Productions
Cast: Geraldine Pailhas, Luc Picard, Felicia Shulman, Eleonore Lagace, Samuel Badaszcs, David Hermann-Dussault, Marcel Sabourin, Raymond Cloutier, Michele Dascain, Jean Cordier, Natalie Choquette
Director: Raphael Nadjari
Screenplay: Raphael Nadjari, Vincent Poymiro
Producers: Alexis Dantec, Fred Bellaiche, Anne-Marie Gelinas, Benoit Beaulieu, Julie Paratian
Director of photography: Benoit Beaulieu
Production designer: Marzia Pellissier
Costume designer: Pierre Moreau Eric Poirier
Editor: Elric Robichon
Music: Jerome Lemonier
Casting: Murielle Laferriere, Brigitte Moidon, Lucie Robitaille
Sales: MK2

Not rated, 119 minutes