On a Magical Night (Chambre 212)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/20/20 07:03:47

"Why are we doing this, again?"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

It's a rare film that's improvised or shot in sequence, and there's almost no way that "On a Magical Night" is one of them. Nevertheless, to watch it is to get the impression of someone having an idea, running with it, getting distracted, forgetting how all this works, and just winding up in a place that makes no damn sense whatsoever. And, sure, this isn't a movie one goes into with any sort of expectation of logical consistency, but this movie just completely loses track of what makes it work.

It initially introduces the audience to Maria Mortemart (Chiara Mastroianni), a forty-ish law school professor who beds her students casually enough that it never occurs to her that husband Richard Warrimer (Benjamin Biolay) has never done likewise, so when he gets upset at seeing texts from the amusingly-named Asdrubal Electorat (Arrison Arevalo) on her phone, she storms out in a huff, checking in at the hotel across the street. The room she's given affords her a view into their apartment, but that's not all - she finds herself visited by a younger version of Richard, from when they first met (Vincent Lacoste), Richard's first lover Irène Haffner (Camille Cottin), who was also his piano teacher when he was an awkward teen, Maria's mother (Marie-Christine Adam), and the personification of her will (Stéphane Roger).

On a Magical Night (or "Chambre 212" in the original French) probably works best if one is not inclined to try and figure things out; as that sort of person, I spent a lot of time grumpy over how Maria's apparent hallucinations could know all of these things that come as a surprise to her, or apparently go on to act independently of her. Or, if this means that there is simply magic to this room, why? Does it happen to everyone who stays there, or does some sort of force aim to either fulfill the couple's fantasies (from Maria's point of view) or help them reconcile? Why?

After all, Maria is fairly awful, even if one is willing to give her extra credit for being a counter to the usual double standard where a man's cheating is minimized and a woman's is considered a betrayal. Chiara Mastroianni may manage that sort of aloof self-serving sophistication well enough to be entertaining, but she's got precious little opportunity to show that there's anything to Maria beyond it. It doesn't help any that she spends most of the movie surrounded by fantasies of people singing her praises or implying that she's not the one who hurt Richard the most - and, despite Camille Cottin giving the part far more than it deserves, the level of sympathy this film has for 40-year-old Irène taking a 14-year-old lover and grooming him does not help. And while Benjamin Biolay and Vincent Lacoste do fair work individually, they never once seem like the same person at different ages, and if that's deliberate, one would think that the film would actually do something with how Maria's vision of Richard when they first met is disconnected from the reality.

Every once in a while, the film will seemingly scold the viewer for taking it that seriously, and it's certainly not hard to want to go along with it, from the opening scene where Maria sighingly laments that she is a slave to her "anthroponymic fantasies to the increasingly absurd visitors she receives. The magical snowfall works in part because it seems like they are thoroughly unconvincing soap flakes, as is the delightfully unreal miniature shot of the street with the pair looming over it. There are plenty of moments scattered throughout when filmmaker Christophe Honoré hits on a winning combination of being drily funny, uninhibited, and poetic.

Despite that, it's almost impossible to ignore that the social elements that make that such a potent, enjoyably French sort of humor also allow toxic people like Maria to thrive, and there's an upper limit to the number of bon mots and farcical fantasies one might be willing to endure to spend time inside her head, especially as Honoré seemingly loses track of why he's in there in the first place.

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