The Passengers of the Night opens with a title card announcing the date: May 10th, 1981. In recent French history, that day marks the election of François Mitterrand, the republic’s first socialist president. In addition, the film is bookended by Mitterrand’s reelection in 1988, therefore equipping the viewer with country-specific context – the hopeful uplift which comes with a change in the political climate. Mikhaël Hers has a penchant for nostalgia (Primrose Hill, 2007 & Montparnasse, 2009), loneliness and reconnection with urban topography (Memory Lane, 2010 & This Summer Feeling, 2015) and the encounter with his latest film feels like a warm, comforting embrace.
With Charlotte Gainsbourg as the magnetic Elisabeth, The Passengers of the Night has a strong lead and a gravitational center for all the secondary characters. Gladly, it’s Gainsbourg’s own welcoming vulnerability which guides the otherwise diffused narrative and seems to bring in the best of everyone she meets.
After her husband has left the family home, Elisabeth is left to pick up the pieces of their secured life; now, she has to take care of her two teenagers on her own and find a job for the first time in years. The financial need, coupled with a sensitivity for human connection, drives her to apply at a nighttime radio show, called “Les passagers de la nuit”, after which the film takes its melancholic title. With tries and errors, Elisabeth treads lightly on her path towards reinvention, and does so while helping others. At the film’s beginning, she takes in a young homeless girl, Talulah (Noée Abita) whose character was supposedly modeled after French actress Pascale Ogier. By bringing in Talulah as well as her history of drug use, the protagonist sees her motherly attitude extend outside her immediate family and while this trope suggests some sort of messianism, with Elisabeth it’s never quite the case.
Hers reunites with Maud Amelie after their collaboration on Amanda (2019) and the result is a fleshed-out, tangible tenderness when it comes to humans and their interactions. Gainsbourg brings somewhat of a headstrong naivete to the role, and an uncompromising openness imbues each of her gestures, from the way she mixes cocoa milk with one hand while holding a cigarette with the other, to the unexpected flood of tears she swallows as soon as her loneliness is disturbed. A character so tactile, multi-faceted, and strong in their weakness gives the French actress the depth and multitudes she deserves, especially in a leading role.
However, the plot quickly becomes convoluted and the jumps in time begin to feel repetitive as it seems nothing has changed. That could, of course, be seen as a redeemable quality of the film, since it thrives in quotidian iterations and the small but moving episodes which encompass a whole duration of time unchanged. Still, the fact that Talulah’s multiple reappearances serve a sacrificial logic to the script – as in, her tragic nomadism sometimes becomes the object of fetishization as her immense fragility is visually and emotionally emphasized. If we leave aside the occasional romanticization of drug addiction, The Passengers of the Night is a tender portrait of a woman who, unbeknownst to her, has the power to keep the whole world together. And who wouldn’t like to be transported into Paris’ 1980s in a cocoon of audio-visual nostalgia?
This review is from the 2022 Berlin Film Festival.