In a recent review for Alain Robbe-Grillet’s surrealistic, but disappointing and uneven film La belle captive, I wrote that “I don’t demand that films make sense, but I do demand that those that don’t provoke me to make sense out of them.” Nuit noire is certainly a film that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s so provocative that it definitely left me wondering what the hell I just watched. I’m certainly not a neophyte when it comes to art-films, or surrealism, or symbolism, or films rooted in dream logic, but the simple fact is that some are better than others. If they were all made equal then Pål Sletaune’s Naboer or Brad Anderson’s The Machinist would be on the same level as Mulholland Drive or The Exterminating Angel. Olivier Smolders’ Nuit noire is definitely a film that kept me on my intellectual tiptoes at the same time it was wowing me with its aesthetics.
Unlike some surrealist films that begin by anchoring their oddities to a storyline and characters that seem otherwise normal, Nuit noire thrusts us right into the thick of its dream world. Two children emerge from darkness. We see them sleeping. We see two profoundly disturbing old men watching over them. We see death and dismemberment. We see a stage show with puppets and snow. But we eventually pull out to see a man looking inside the head of our protagonist Oscar (Fabrice Rodriguiez), as if the two are in some kind of Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. As it turns out, Oscar works for a museum as an entomologist or insect expert, collecting, nurturing and cataloguing all kinds of species both rare and common. But Oscar seems to be living in a world that’s in perpetual night, and when he comes home to his apartment one day to find a naked African woman in his bed (who’s only ever identified as “La femme afriaine” and played by Yves-Marie Gnahoua), things just get weirder and weirder as the line between reality and dream becomes indistinguishable.
Watching the film one certainly isn’t in short supply when it comes to acknowledging its predecessors. Lynch’s Eraserhead perhaps comes to mind most immediately, if only because it was another film that never made any pretense towards normality. One can also see Lynch in Smolders’ meticulously composed frames and the careful art-design that walks a line between recognizable reality, literary allusions and expressionism. If we want to go back further we can see the influence of Maya Deren in the film’s perpetual dream-state mode. One can see Kafka—or going further back, Ovid—in the film’s obsession with metamorphosis. Buñuel should probably be acknowledged when it comes to Smolders’ vivid use of animals, which extends beyond insects to zebras, elephants, and leopards. But if Nuit noire was merely a collection of easily identified influences then it wouldn’t be as fascinating as it is. The truth is that even these recognizable elements are transmogrified and integrated into a film that feels utterly unique.
That idiosyncrasy can especially be seen in the outstanding, evocative macro photography of the insects, which is frequently intercut with the story itself. It’s in these instances where Smolders most brilliantly invokes the feeling of dreamscapes because, even though we know that these are depictions of real, living creatures in an environment, in bringing them to such immense life on the big screen Smolders has imbued them with a sense of the surreal and the dreamlike. These insects seem to effortlessly embody the moods and emotions of the film, from the elegant to the grotesque to the mysterious to the threatening and the struggling. The other animals are used more sparingly to make their appearances pop out of the screen; the elephant running down the road was an especially vivid touch, as are the motif of wolves, dogs, and leopards that seem to preside over the film like fantasy spirits.
This last element is another one of import in the film for it is a film obsessed with fantasy, magic, fairy tales and mythology. There are two, especially, that seem to dominate and that’s African mysticism and a kind of Nordic folklore quality. We can see the African mysticism most strongly in the character of the “La femme africaine” and the mystery she seems to embody. But it’s also the film’s ability to imbue objects such as a necklace with voodoo-like power. The Nordic fables revolve around the presence of wolves and leopards, of snow and blood, and of the omnipresent concept of metamorphosis and origins. When Oscar comes upon a dog eating the carcass of a man on the road, one is somewhat reminded of the canine spirit from Tarkovsky’s Stalker. All of these elements seem to coalesce in the film’s world of nightmarish images and sounds.
Those sounds (and the music) are as essential to Nuit noire as any of its visual or narrative elements. This seems to be another cue that Smolders took from Eraserhead in realizing that while images can create mood and atmosphere, sound and music can galvanize them and turn a film into a rich, full-bodied, 3-dimensional experience. While the film lists no less than six names on the credits for the sound department, there is, very strangely, no credit for the music; at least, none that I can find on IMDb or around the internet. The sound itself is enveloping, usually made up of abstract drones that reverberate throughout the room. The music is a combination of rather familiar classical pieces and more choral music that seems vaguely familiar but, on another level, wholly alien. Both provide much of the film’s haunting atmosphere.
But what does it all mean? I get the feeling that Smolders himself doesn’t know. Nuit noire feels less like a cinematic puzzle in the vein of Mulholland Drive and more like an exercise in pure aesthetic expression a la Last Year at Marienbad or even Un chien andalou. But if Nuit noire is intentionally meaningless, it’s the kind of expressionistic surrealism that openly invites people to interpret its symbols as unconsciously meaningful. There certainly isn’t a lack of motifs in the film; in fact, Nuit noire seems to be an exercise in allowing nearly every element that’s introduced to repeat in increasingly provocative ways. We have the “home movies” of Oscar with his father and (perhaps) sister hunting in Africa, we have the gun-wielding man who seems to be hunting someone, we have the necklace which holds a lock of hair, we have the image of a mutilated body in the snow, we have Oscar’s chest of mysterious memories, we have the juxtaposition of taxidermy and live animals, we have white and black, day and night, sex and death, fear and desire… one could likely go on endlessly noting the film’s classic psychological obsessions.
Perhaps the most memorable such moment from the film being when Oscar wraps the “La femme africaine” in a larva-like cocoon from which Marie Neige (Marie Lecomte), who is supposedly the adult version of Oscar’s sister, emerges. That disturbing scene quickly leads to the next when the two make love, which causes the sun to appear to illuminate the whole world for the next several minutes (the same thing had happened earlier, but only for a few seconds). That extreme between perpetual darkness and day seem to be just two of the film’s polar opposites. But it’s in the film’s synthesis of themes which begins at the Neige’s hatching and leads to the sex scene, the murder of the taxidermist, the dance, and the montage which seems to suggest La femme africaine, Neige and Oscar’s young sister are the same person that gives the film its sense of internal logic.
Nuit noire may be a bit pretentious, it may not quite live up to the greatness that the likes of Kafka, Deren, Lynch and Buñuel have achieved, but it’s still a must-see if only because there’s nothing else quite like it. Nuit noire is as provocative, visually and aurally rich, surrealistic, dreamlike and aesthetically effective cinema as anything out there today. Considering the fact that Lynch seems to be slowing down, only offering us a new film every several years, Smolders may be the best hope we have for a director to succeed that throne, and Nuit noire may just prove to be an impactful calling card for those who dare to see it.