Farewell to the Night (L’adieu à la nuit, France / Germany, 2019)

This title was a world premiere at the Berlinale [Out of Competition]. So it enjoyed a prestige screening in a packed Berlinale Palast. And the audience also got to see the festival provide star treatment for film VIPs. The entrance is fronted by red carpets up which smart limousines drive and then deposit their guests. They presumably enjoy a pre-event cocktail or similar, and, when the audience is settled make a grand entrance into the auditorium. So I got to see Catherine Deneuve and André Téchiné close-up. I suspect for these stars the participation is a necessary ordeal but it was clearly a thrill for large part of the audience. The film itself did not quite match the razzmatazz.

Muriel (Deneuve) runs a horse farm with her Algerian partner Youssef (Mohamed Djouhri); they also grow almonds on this picturesque plantation in Southern France {I think the Carmague]. Their relationship goes back to Muriel’s upbringing in Algeria , presumably in part both before and after Independence. The main drama concerns her grandson Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein) who is in a relationship with Lia (Oulaya Amamra), a relative of Youssef. Alex seems estranged from his father and his mother died in an accident, part of the problem between Alex and his father.

Lia is a practising Muslim but unbeknown to all but Alex she has become a radicalised Islamist. She and Alex plan to join a leading Islamist Bilal (Stéphane Bak) and leave to join and fight for Daesh.

Whilst we learn about the relationships we also watch as the Muriel gradually realises that something untoward is afoot. The film’s climax follows her realisation of what her beloved grandson and his lover are planning. The film is set over four or five days and these are indicated by on screen titles. So there is a developing tension as the clock ticks down and the characters become more aware of events.

The film is well produced with picaresque cinematography by Julien Hirsch. The overall production values are good as is the design, editing and sound. The dialogue is in French and Arabic with English sub-titles. And the cast are generally convincing as characters (within the limits of the writing). Deneuve, of course, can play her part with consummate ease and little apparent effort.

But the script does not really work effectively. The attempt to generate tension with the timeline is not helpful; the drama is one that is about relationships rather than deadlines. Some of the action is implausible, as when Alex is locked up in a barn but lacks the know-how to escape. The jihadist group seem naïve and one expects that a leading Islamist would have a better grasp of security. Whilst Alex and Lia are supposed to be devout Muslims but their actions, including the sexual, do not really fit their religious fervour.

The original idea for the story came from Téchiné himself. This struck me as odd as the film seemed quite atypical of his film work,. I like quite a few of his earlier films but this production lacked the sense of an experienced guiding hand. The Berlinale Brochure commented:

What begins as a personal story about a family takes on surprisingly political dimensions and currency. This in turn raises questions to which there are no simple answers. (Berlinale Brochure)

The last is true but there are films that I thought address these issues better; the British television two-part drama Britz (C4 2007) is one example. The merit of this treatment is that it does offer a more rounded treatment of ‘terrorists’ than films like United 93.

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