Quebec-based director Anne Émond's drama Nuit #1 opens when a couple, initially nameless to one another, meet at a Montreal rave, then return to his apartment for several rounds of heated, passionate intercourse. In the hours that follow, they begin to divulge torrents of vulnerabilities to one another -- dreams, terrors, ghastly and shocking personal flaws.
It's encouraging that this film received multiple Genie nominations and critical acclaim in Canada, because Émond deserves endless praise for taking one of the most audacious cinematic gambles in memory. Much will be made of the soft-core eroticism that fills the initial quarter hour, but that seems like child's play vis-à-vis the high-wire act of the ensuing 75 minutes. The writer-director stages the exchanges of Clara (Catherine de Léan) and Nikolaï (Dimitri Storoge) not as traditional cinematic discourse but as a series of virtually unbroken monologues. One thinks of the myriad of ways that this could have pushed the film off the rails, but the emotional richness, honesty, and poetic lyricism that permeate virtually every line of dialogue build the magnetism of the drama as its protagonists venture forth into uncertainty together.
To be certain, the material is schematic -- first we hear each partner's future hopes in light of the sexual act, then his proclamations about the vapidness of his own life, then hers -- but it scarcely matters, because the young actors are so convincing and compelling. Nuit #1 seems influenced heavily by the doyen of post-coital cinematic dialogue and emotion, Jean Eustache -- especially his marathon drama The Mother and the Whore (1973). And like Eustache, Émond is acknowledging the sad irony that we live in an era where sex is cheap and pervasive, but legitimate connection -- soul-to-soul connection with another human being -- requires shattering courage. Most interesting and compelling is the way in which each character's revelations compound the other's willingness to travel to even greater degrees of self-abasement in the name of honesty as the night rolls on. We see the fear (and fleeting self-delusion) associated with this manifest in one dazzling scene where Clara tears out of the apartment screaming, "You're a loser! I f----d a loser!" with Nikolaï physically running after her and repeatedly grabbing her, refusing to let her slip out of his life. He's instinctively aware that she's cut from the same cloth, and every bit as familiar with the emptiness and despair of life as he is, albeit momentarily terrified to acknowledge it.
A quick summary of Nuit #1 may make it sound stagy, but it should be said that Émond also approaches the mise-en-scène with great imagination: the apartment -- seedy, shabby and disgusting, with peeling, grungy wallpaper and filth caked all over the bathroom -- somehow takes on a haunting quality via Mathieu Laverdière's impressionistic lighting. And in the rare moments when the characters leave the flat, the film grows particularly tactile: Laverdière's camera shows us drops of rain spackling Clara's shoulders, and we can almost feel the water on her body. This is the sort of realism for which Canadian film critic Gerald Pratley used to hyperbolically praise John Frankenheimer, yet here, it works far more effectively and memorably than it ever did in one of Frankenheimer's films.
As a writer, Émond also benefits from her own innate optimism; as indicated, the bulk of this film may recall Eustache, but it should be said that this is ultimately a much happier picture than The Mother and the Whore, one that doesn't let the existentialism and jadedness of its surrounding world drown out the possibility of legitimate emotional unification between people. The film interpolates a stunning and profound metaphor in its final act, when one of the characters walks out to the edge of a rooftop and stares down at the drop below, as if considering a leap -- and you suddenly get the risk that a real adult relationship entails.
This is minimalist cinema, but it's also a reflection on what a rare commodity actual talent is. We live in an era when the prevalence (and inexpensiveness) of DV suggests to many naïve first-timers that they can be the next directorial sensation, but how many aspiring filmmakers actually possess the inner resources to establish themselves on that level? Here is one who does. As the great Shirley Clarke did many times throughout her career, Émond has managed to turn out a profound and brilliant work, with a tiny cast, one set, and what must have been a miniscule budget. Nuit #1 is a revelation from first frame to last -- a breathtaking work of art that announces its creator as one of the most vital and fresh directorial voices of her generation.