On a Magical Night
2020, NR, 88 min. Directed by Christophe Honoré. Starring Chiara Mastroianni, Benjamin Biolay, Vincent Lacoste, Kolia Abiteboul, Camille Cottin, Carole Bouquet, Stéphane Roger, Harrison Arevalo.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 22, 2020
Ennui, thy name is Maria. As played in this uneven French fantastical curiosity by Mastroianni, she's a university lecturer who has firmly brought into the idea that affairs are just the way of life in Paris, and disposes of lovers like a crumpled pack of Gitanes. Well, reality hits hard, and fantasy even harder, in this magical realist oddity when she finds that the universe may disagree. Exiting their apartment after her husband, Richard (Biolay), discovers and is devastated by her infidelities, she checks in to a hotel right across the street. To her great surprise, Richard is already here: or rather, a 20-year-old version of Richard (Lacoste), as well as his ex-lover from before they were married (Cottin), Maria's mother, her grandmother, a progression of her former lovers, the personification of her will dressed up as a cheap Charles Aznavour cover act ...
Basically a meaner French version of schmaltzy Matthew McConaughey romcom Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (itself one of the worst adaptations of A Christmas Carol) mixed with a French bedroom farce, On a Magical Night shackles itself, as if with Marley's chains, to a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Her inability to comprehend her husband's fidelity is galling, and doesn't make her a free spirit or libertine - just callous and shallow. Her pretense that she decides to leave Richard is exactly that: A hard-hearted attempt at self-justification buried under fake self-empowerment.
So what kind of self-examination does she go through? Not an especially probing one, and one that can't work out whether it wants to castigate or lionize Maria. Mastroianni does more with asides and glances than the script provides her in the way of dialog, while Biolay gives Richard a mournful edge that means more than the Patient Griselda trope that his character could have been. Yet Honoré can never balance the measured formality of his French New Wave influences with the magical realist tendencies he explores here.
It doesn't help that one of the wittiest, if still heavy-handed, jokes - a legal code pun, of all things - is lost in translation when the title was changed from Chambre 212 to the rather mundane On a Magical Night. But Honoré's biggest failure is in winding the path between meaningful character insight and the whimsical, fantastical elements. There's too much detachment, with only Richard seemingly feeling the weight of Maria's actions. Everyone else feels like a cipher of a character, there to serve the overall moral of the divide between our past and present selves. Sadly, while the intention may be a Big Fish-esque rumination on everyone's penchant for self-mythologizing, it's more a Sliding Doors-style tale of shoulda, woulda, coulda that never quite does.
On a Magical Night is available now via Alamo on Demand (link.)