By Mark James.
You can tell that Yann Gonzalez’s film, You and the Night (Rencontres d’après minuit, better translated as Encounters after Midnight) is a fantasy because of its central set-up: an orgy in which the participants reveal their emotional pasts. The cinematic possibilities of strangers meeting up for sex are only a starting-point for Gonzalez, whose feature debut signals the arrival of an assured visual stylist, bringing equal parts lyricism, kitch, and exquisite images to the screen. Narratively, he still has room to grow, almost fumbling the end of what is otherwise a delightful, erotic romp in the tradition of Buñuel, Ozon, or Araki. But You and the Night is only Gonzalez’s first feature-length film after a number of well-regarded shorts, and he demonstrates an eye for casting that a more established director would envy, helming Eric Cantona, Kate Moran, Niels Schneider (poached from his peer Xavier Dolan), and even handing Alain Fabien Delon (of the Alain Delon Delons) his screen debut. Despite the third act’s shift in tone to gratuitous tragedy, it’s a testament to Gonzalez’s promising talent that you can’t wait to see him dust himself off and make a second film after this uneven beginning.
You and the Night is centered on a young couple (Moran and Schneider) and their transvestite maid Udo (Nicolas Maury) as they host an orgy in their small, spare home. The couple enjoys the group sex as a way to spice up their otherwise confined lives, though the opening scene suggests a dynamic in their relationship that better explains why the two invite strangers in to join their coitus. A stylized opening sequence shows Moran stolen from Schneider by an anonymous biker—a cuckold’s fantasy if there ever was one. While the Real of their desire is too much to bear, the two withdraw to their home turf in order to reenact the scene with strangers as guests under their control. But in a nod to Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the sex party never really gets down to the sex. The orgiasts arrive and are interrupted by reminiscences of their formative sexual moments.
It’s a small orgy, so we get to meet every participant. Their names are their archetypes, and their backstories don’t stray too far afield. The Slut (Julie Bremond), the Teen (Delon), the Stud (Cantona) and the Star (Fabienne Babe) are all allowed their own dream sequences, baring their sexual histories and early experiences for the others to see. The maid tartly serves the guests and sets the mood, offering “Speed? Cocaine? MDMA? Something to drink?” and moving through the party at once totally enveloped in fantasy and with a workmanlike efficiency. The quasi-sterile environment recalls a break-the-ice function at a new job or a new school, a comparison that some reviewers picked up on, calling it a sort of X-rated Breakfast Club.
With a set-up like this, we know we’ll witness some emotional revelation and should expect cathartic transformation on the part of one or all of the characters, as the strangers are fused into a group through the power of uncovering what they had hidden within themselves. But what sets You and the Night in a different category from The Breakfast Club is that the psychosexual origins of the attendees’ presence at the soirée are on gorgeous display, and rendered with more care and attention than their eventual catharsis. Gonzalez’s enamoration with formal touches and film-theoretical allusions bathe his characters in a flattering light. But as is often the case with orgies, the host doesn’t quite know how to draw it to a close.
Which is a shame, because Gonzalez sets up what could be a joyful erotic exploration of the absurdity of desire. His cast is certainly capable, and the scoring by French band M83 (he’s an ex-member) drives quite a bit of the way for him. But in the third act the movie veers off into a tonally dissonant direction. Gonzalez seems to have wanted to use his characters to explore the limits of his own cinematic desires, dropping them on a soundstage and subjecting them to the fantasmic trickery of film techniques (lighting design, especially). Like the couple directing the orgy, Gonzalez puts his performers in vulnerable positions in the hopes of some emotional payoff.
The performers deliver admirably—Cantona and Moran, especially. The soccer star-turned-actor does a Gallic Dirk Diggler: in a flashback, the young buck is a budding poet whose prosthetic endowment is discovered by a dominatrix (très French). And Moran, a muse of Gonzalez’s and quickly attaining favor with other young directors, as Ali displays the confidence and complexity of a woman whose hold on her man and on her own desires has the power to upend so much more. It’s the sexual frankness and surface-level perversity of You and the Night that disguises its typically patriarchal view of female desire. But Moran delivers both, and makes the ending, with its sentimental view of the family, understandable if not satisfactory.
If you’re interested in seeing the early work of a visionary director who is clearly going to go on to do better things, or watch the adhesion of a new cohort of art-house actors (Delon, Moran, and Schneider are all going to keep making the festival rounds) catch You and the Night. It’s certainly a worthwhile reason to spend two hours in a darkened room. The mise-en-scène and the play of references should keep you entertained while the story is bogged down in tragedy, and watching the young acting talent discover their abilities is a joy. But going out to see the movie for a night of thoughtful or cogent exploration of pleasure itself—the way it relies on fantasy, loss, specters, and projection; much like film, as Gonzalez suggests—might leave you and the night unfulfilled.
Mark James lives in San Francisco and is a frequent contributor to Film International.
You and the Night was reviewed at New York’s NewFest LGBT film festival.