Berlin 2015 review: Nobody Wants the Night – Juliette Binoche's Arctic role requires more defrosting

Binoche plays a polar-bear slaying dame hunting down her errant Arctic explorer husband in this lukewarm starter to this year’s festival

The Berlin film festival has got off to an uncertain start with an opening gala movie from Catalan director Isabel Coixet which turned out to be a flabby Euro-pudding co-production using Spanish and Bulgarian money and shot partly on (disguised) location in Tenerife. The film is possessed of blandly humanistic flavours, new-agey gestures and quaint stereotypes, self-consciously performed by an international cast, each of whom looked vaguely baffled at why they were there - although Juliette Binoche, in the lead role, brings to the movie her own above-the-title élan. It is a pretty flimsy piece of work, a butterfly of whimsy, which comes near to bring broken on the wheel of its own ponderousness.

The scene is the Canadian Arctic in 1908 and Mrs Peary (Binoche) is an imperious, impetuous woman of considerable means; she has come out to these frozen wastes to pursue her husband - a headstrong explorer who has a passion for this terrain and who has spent most of their marriage apart from his wife, pursuing the dream of placing himself at the North Pole. Mrs Peary has, with formidable determination, and resplendent in stylish and rather Russian-looking furs hired a local team of trackers, led by grizzled old Bram, played by Gabriel Byrne in fake hair and whiskers which make him look like mixture of Captain Oates and Fagin. As her journey gets more arduous, and her inner journey more painful, Mrs Peary is to encounter a friendly Inuit woman, Allaka - played by Rinko Kikuchi - with whom she realises she has more in common than she thought.

Nobody Wants The Night
Photograph: PR

The Arctic itself is invoked rather cursorily with no very original or compelling insights. It is honest, plain-speaking Bram who must effectively ventriloquise this tough landscape. “It is pure,” he says, of this white and snowy land, “more than the sea, more even than the sky.” And later he says solemnly: “It’s nature. She’s the one who makes the rules.” And in the course of a flickeringly candlelit dinner in an early stage of the expedition, it is stout-hearted Bram who reminds the other Europeans present that the death-toll includes not merely western adventurers but Inuits without whose help it would all be impossible.

The film’s most purely startling moment comes at the beginning when Mrs Peary shoots a polar bear and is mightily pleased with herself - it’s as preposterous and contrived as everything else in the film, but an interesting slap at a modern audience’s sensibilities and a rare refusal of sentimentality.

Coixet is a director who has explored extremes of passion before, but with more grit and more plausibility in her Elegy (2008) - an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novella about amour fou, A Dying Animal - Ben Kingsley played the older academic and intellectual who sets out to seduce a younger woman, played by Penélope Cruz. What made Coixet’s interpretation of Roth so valuable was that it restored the female perspective. The woman was not simply subject to the man’s possessive, obsessive gaze - she had her own presence in front of Coixet’s camera.

Nobody Wants the Night
Photograph: PR

But Isabel Coixet’s dramatisation of femininity in Nobody Wants The Night is much less powerful. The dialogue is in English - not the mother tongue of either female lead actor - and it often feels like a kind of international esperanto of well meaning. The Arctic itself seems to function merely as a neutral blank slate in which people of different backgrounds can come together.

On paper, Nobody Wants The Night should be bold and dramatic - but there is an awful wishy-washiness to it. Juliette Binoche’s natural star quality drives the film earnestly onward, like Mrs Peary with her team of huskies.


Peter Bradshaw in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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