“Often when we go to the cinema we feel like we’re being taken for fools because things we have instantly understood are laboriously explained. Here it’s a little the other way round.”–Olivier Smolders
DIRECTED BY: Olivier Smolders
FEATURING: Fabrice Rodriguez, Yves-Marie Gnahoua, Iris Debusschere
PLOT: A solitary entomologist works at a natural history museum in a world where it is only light for fifteen seconds a day. One day, he comes home to his empty apartment and discovers an African woman sleeping in his bed. She is ill and pregnant and eventually dies, leaving him to deal with the body.
- Olivier Smolders was born in the Congo, which explains the source of the film’s African imagery.
- A prolific short film maker, Nuit Noire is Smolders’ only feature film to date.
- The movie received a very limited theatrical release even in its native Belgium, and did not appear in U.S. theaters (outside of a few film festivals) at all. Little has been written about Nuite Noir in the English language (an only a little more in French).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The African woman’s dead body turning into a pupae, then splitting open as a new life emerges.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: 15 seconds of sun; elephant in the alley; African corpse cocooning
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world of eternal midnight, with troubled dreams of dead children and troubling realities of sick foreign women who mysteriously show up in your bed, Nuit Noire manipulates time and concepts in ways that only film can. One woman changes into another, and then into another. This story could not take place in the light of day.
Short clip from Nuit Noire
COMMENTS: Closeups of squirming bugs a la Blue Velvet. A reserved protagonist taking care of a sick charge in his isolated apartment a la Eraserhead. Billowing red curtains a la… every movie. Noire star Fabrice Rodriguez even has a boyish, buttoned-up handsomeness that’s perhaps not-coincidentally reminiscent of Lynch lead . Yes, Nuit Noire reeks of Lynch’s influence, but a weird movie director who’s inspired by David Lynch is like a thriller director inspired by . It’s hardly a complaint, so long as it’s influence and not mere imitation. Smolders takes his own unique, personal obsessions and sets them in a Lynchian atmosphere: oppressive, alone, with a quiet dread slowly blossoming into the full flower of weirdness.
There are three levels of reality in Nuit Noire; none of which are, truthfully, very real. The first is the world of eternal night in which Oskar lives, in which we spend the most time, the city where he trudges through his routine of joyless work alternating with insect-breeding. There is also the African childhood of his past, which we see captured on old home movies; and then there’s Oskar’s frequent dreams, which exhibit only a psychological reality. The primary reality is strange enough: a world of near-eternal darkness, lit only by fifteen seconds of sunlight per cycle. It’s a nocturnal purgatory of dark lonely streets, where ghosts and phantoms have license to walk among us, a world where dreams rightfully should dominate. The era seems to be just after the turn of the Twentieth century: there is electricity for lamps and batteries for flashlights, films run on projectors, there are bicycles but no automobiles, men go to work in three-piece suits, and pistols are of vintage caliber. Oskar has no friends in this world; he appears to prefer his own company, retreating after work into the sanctuary of his apartment, where he amuses himself by tending to his large collection of insects. At night, he has disturbing dreams. He is reserved around his museum coworkers and avoids the local vigilante as much as he can. He is relatively terrified of women: his angry Eastern European landlady browbeats him about visitors, and a schoolgirl who breaks away from her tour halfway seduces him but leaves him frustrated. He clearly prefers to be left alone to drift along in a boring but tranquil daze, which is why his pathetic equanimity is especially disturbed by the appearance of a naked woman who doesn’t speak French in his bed. His immediate goal is to get her out of his home, but his essential passivity and good-nature eventually make him take responsibility for the misplaced woman.
We suspect that Oskar’s old home movies, which he watches as ceremoniously as he moistens the cage of his walking stick insect, will provide some depth to understanding his blank character. We presume that home movies, unlike dreams or Surrealist narratives, don’t lie. One precious reel is stored in a cabinet whose walls are lined with tinted photographs from the past and filled with fetishistic trinkets (including a life-sized sculpture of a human hand, and a seashell necklace that belonged to his sister). In black and white, the film shows a sunlit Africa, a bearded white man in a safari hat with a rifle, and two happy masked children, Oskar and (presumably) his sister. The snippet ends just before the girl removes her white panther mask. When his African interloper watches the same scene, she grows angry and throws the necklace at the screen, cracking it. Other reels of film show African tribeswomen preparing potions, only to be attacked by unknown people disguised as leopards. Later in the movie, Oskar comes across some heretofore undiscovered movies filmed by his late father, with surprising new revelations about his early family life that contradict his narrative and memories. The African tribal artifacts and a portrait of his Great White Hunter dad that decorate his small apartment connect him to this past reality of an African childhood, which has long been put behind him but still haunts his dreams.
Oskar’s dreams are the least reliable strata of facts in the movie, but they tell us the most about his character, revealing a man suffering guilt and bereavement over his beloved sister’s childhood death—although, naturally, ambiguity rules. There is seldom any ambiguity about when we are in Oskar’s dreams, however—the red stage curtains, the proscenium lined with shells, and the melodic chanting that appears only in these dreams will clue us in. The movie in fact begins in a dream, as two children—one Oskar, as we know from his birthmark, the other a girl we see snoozing on a bed beside him—walk through a fairytale forest carrying lanterns as stage snow falls. They meet a man who changes into a wolf, young Oskar flees, and we see for the first time the image that recurringly haunts our hero’s dream: a young girl’s bloody and dismembered body. (We then notice that this dream is being spied upon by Oskar’s psychiatrist, who watches it through a funnel inserted in his patient’s ear, although that fact is neither here nor there for our purposes). Oskar’s next dream has him cutting off a lock of the girl’s hair and stuffing it in the seashell necklace we will later see in the film cabinet, then murdering her with the scissors. No matter what happens in these dreams, they all revolve around the sister—their idyllic days of childhood play, and hints of some tragedy that took her away from him. The final third of the movie breaks down—or climaxes, depending on your orientation—into a storm of symbolism, with there no longer being any question of reality operating on any level. Constant daylight and African animals—zebras, elephants, leopards—suddenly flood the formerly nocturnal world, and the presumably dead return to life.
Perhaps nothing explains the film better than the opening prologue, which translates as “I was afraid to sleep, the night seemed so peopled with ghosts. My fear and my desire to see them caused events which I recognized very well without really understanding them.” Nuit Noire is the fascination with the dark, occult subconscious, illuminated here only in slivers by lamps or film projectors, otherwise all menacing shadows. The events of the plot are “recognized” by the audience as incidents, things we might see in other films or in life, but here reconfigured in unfamiliar ways. To the dreamer, Oskar, the recognition is presumably of old memories of his sister and his childhood in Africa, hinting at some shame or trauma that he has not been able to integrate into his waking life. The puzzle-solving moviegoer, who thinks of a plot as a feat of fact-engineering, will find Nuit Noire poorly made, too full of contradictions. One supportable construction (a more precise word than “interpretation” in this case) is that the woman who appears in Oskar’s bed is actually his sister —born, perhaps, out of wedlock to his white explorer father. Her appearance, now adult and sickly, inside Oskar’s most intimate chambers would then represent his struggle to accept the truth about the sibling he’s unjustly rejected. There’s indubitably some incestuous desire tied in there, too. But the evidence could also support the idea that Oskar had two sisters, or the whole story could all just be an allegory for Belgian colonialism. The amateur psychologist will throw up his hands in dismay, or, like Oskar’s in-movie therapist, complain “You’re making things up… It’s likely you never even had a sister.” Many others, of course, will respond as does the museum worker when delivering the reels of film he’s developed at Oskar’s request. “There’s a problem with your films,” he deadpans. “I don’t understand it. It’s not clear at all.” Smolders’ scenario may be as impenetrable as the jungles of the Belgian Congo, but at least he can have a sense of humor about it.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s definitely not a film for everyone as it’s strange as hell and is rather impenetrable on the first viewing, but it’s a very accomplished piece of cinema that should find its way to an enthusiastic fanbase.”–Niels Matthijs, Screen Anarchy (DVD)
Nuite Noire – Stills, synopsis, and some links to interviews from the filmmaker’s home site, all in French.
IMDB LINK: Nuit Noire (2005)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Trailer NUIT NOIRE – The original French language trailer for the film
DVD INFO: The Cult Epics DVD (buy) comes with a wealth of bonus material. There are nine minutes of deleted scenes (although the menu title incorrectly claims seventeen minutes); all of the information here introduces new mysteries rather than resolving things. There are also six minutes of behind-the-scenes footage (although, again, the menu misleadingly says eleven minutes), including scenes of the leopard trainer in action and child actors having fun working a cow’s udders. There is also an interview of (about seven minutes), where the director gives hints for watching the film (but no explanations) and another seven minute “About Black Night” featurette with Smolders reciting poetic narration over an interesting mix of dioramas and footage from the film. The final extra is the six-minute short/trailer “Spiritual Exercises,” a meditation on cinema illustrated with images from Smolders’ short film collection of the same name, which are as surreal as you would expect from the creator of Nuit Noire.
The film is not available on Blu-ray or rent-on-demand.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Anonymous Coward,” who called it “an incredible piece of pure surrealism.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)