French director Mikhaël Hers, who explored the way forward for his characters after destabilizing loss in films like 2018’s Amanda, reveals comparable tenderness and attention to illuminating detail in The Passengers of the Night. The life-changing event here is that of a woman being dumped by her husband and left to raise her teenage kids without financial support, played in a touching performance of crystalline emotional transparency by Charlotte Gainsbourg. While the director’s stylistic flourishes can feel distracting, this is a lovely minor-key character study that at its best reminded me of the Paul Mazursky classic, An Unmarried Woman.
At heart, the story, co-written by Hers, Maud Ameline and Mariette Désert, is about the mending of two broken souls, each of them gradually finding their feet as free spirits, without the crutches of conventional marriage on one hand and drugs on the other.
The Passengers of the Night
Charlotte Gainsbourg lights up a lovely character study.
The pleasing delicacy of the principal thread, about newly single, careworn fortysomething Elisabeth (Gainsbourg), is so captivating that the more ensemble-driven elements concerning her high school-age son Matthias (Quito Rayon-Richter) and a troubled teenage drug addict from the streets who goes by Talulah (Noée Abita) often appear to be fighting for attention. But even if the balance feels imperfect, the overall effect, and the enormous fondness the director shows for all his characters, makes for satisfying drama.
The story opens on election night in May 1981, when socialist François Mitterrand became president, stoking widespread hope of liberal reforms. In one of the high-rise apartments of Paris’ quinzième, where she has spent her married life, Elisabeth finds it hard to share the optimism of her student activist daughter Judith (Megan Northam). She desperately needs work and was fired on her first day in an office job. A mild insomniac, she often listens to the late-night Radio France talkback show that gives Hers’ fourth feature its title.
Also a fan of that show is Talulah, whose hard, punky look and industrial strength makeup initially make her appear to have wandered in from Betty Blue. But the character, and Abita’s tough-but-fragile performance, are actually a direct homage to Pascale Ogier, who earned fame in films by Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette and died tragically in 1984, the night before her 26th birthday. Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris, in which Ogier starred to great acclaim, is cited here, and a brief clip is seen from Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord, which she co-wrote and starred in with her mother, Bulle Ogier. (Grainy video inserts of archive material from the era also include shots from the Claire Denis TV documentary, Jacques Rivette, le veilleur.)
Although she has few qualifications for work beyond her psychology degree, Elisabeth scores an interview with “Passengers of the Night” host Vanda Dorval (an almost unrecognizable Emmanuelle Béart), thanks to a letter she wrote as a longtime listener. With her blond hair pulled back in a tight bun and her wardrobe consisting solely of masculine suits, Vanda is a no-bullshit professional with a slightly brittle veneer. But she believes in giving people a chance, and she agrees to try out Elisabeth, working the phones to screen callers. In an amusingly movie-ish moment, the job starts “right now.”
Gainsbourg is at her most enchanting conveying the unaccustomed satisfaction Elisabeth gets from being part of a working unit, seemingly still pinching herself about her luck weeks later to the point where she hasn’t even realized her trial period is over. Even an inadvertent screw-up that draws a flash of Vanda’s anger and the minor mistake of a messy one-time sexual encounter with a co-worker (Laurent Poitrenaux) don’t set her back for long, despite her lingering insecurities and sadness.
Like Elisabeth, 18-year-old Talulah writes in to the show, hinting at her dropout life and the unhappy family situation she fled. But when she’s invited in to the studio as a guest, she clams up on air. Elisabeth sees her on a bench outside after the program, and when she learns that the young woman is living between cheap hotels and squats, she invites her home to stay for a few days in a separate upstairs studio that her husband kept as a storage space.
Meanwhile, Matthias’ teacher is frustrated with his lack of focus, despite showing ability in creative writing. He’s smart but directionless, drawing him to Talulah like a moth to a flame. This sentimental education part of the drama is more prosaic, and the on-off drug habit that causes Talulah to drift in and out of the family’s orbit is too easily resolved. But the natural performances keep you watching, as does the affecting generosity of spirit with which Hers observes his characters, invariably favoring their good qualities like kindness and sensitivity over their flaws.
Those strengths help counter the slight overuse of the video interludes, in which the intermittent shifts in aspect ratio often feel random and cine-modish. But the mix of those elements with the muted tones and soft edges of Sébastien Buchmann’s cinematography nonetheless helps to evoke a strong sense of Paris in the ‘80s, as does the synth-heavy score by Anton Sanko, mixed in with period cuts by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, The Go-Betweens, John Cale and others.
The film’s chief pleasure, however, is its skill at revealing Elisabeth’s inner life, while also tracking the growing confidence of her interactions with the world, not just as a wife or mother but as her own person. Her vulnerability remains, but there’s a sense that she’s becoming more equipped to deal with life’s knocks. Hers doesn’t over-explain either her past or her present — we never see the departed husband nor learn much about him; we’re shown evidence that she’s a breast cancer survivor but the illness is only mentioned indirectly — and yet there’s a richly multidimensional character portrait in Gainsbourg’s luminous performance.
Forced to take a second job for financial reasons, she gets part-time work at a library, which again shows the happiness she feels at being a productive part of the world, as well as introducing a love interest in a frequent book borrower, Hugo (Thibault Vinçon), who’s basically a sweet stalker. That romance is not treated as the solution to her problems or the answer to her loneliness, but rather as an interesting new wrinkle in her life that she will explore on her own terms.
There are charming notes in her encounters with her warmly sympathetic father (Didier Sandre); in her first visit to her daughter’s new home after Judith moves into a shared apartment with other college students; and in her gift to Matthias, by that point an aspiring professional writer, of her old journals. A gorgeous sequence in which Elisabeth celebrates her birthday by going out dancing with her radio colleagues (to Euro disco hit “I Wanna Discover You,” by She Male) is the most explicit visual display of her fully embracing her new freedom.
The film spans several years in her life and that of her family, covering moments both important and relatively inconsequential. It’s a credit to Hers’ contemplative, never intrusive observational style that by the end of the two-hour running time we know them intimately.