Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2018

The Night Eats the World

Peace and quiet and zombies

On bad parties, blind luck, and the loneliness of survival

The Night Eats the World
Blue Fox Entertainment
Director: Dominique Rocher
Screenplay: Jérémie Guez, Guillaume Lemans and Dominique Rocher, based on the novel by Pit Agarmen
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Denis Lavant, Sigrid Bouaziz and Golshifteh Farahani
Not rated / 1 hour, 33 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

As paradoxes go, existing in complete safety in a completely unsafe world has more than its share of perks. It just tends to take a psychological toll is all.

It was dumb luck that Sam wound up spared from the bloodshed that claimed everyone else in his vicinity (and as far as he can tell, most of civilization itself) over a single night. Maybe not even dumb luck - more like a cosmic joke. He fell asleep in a room by himself, and the carnage simply passed him over. Survival as an absurd accident. The joke goes further: a) This is his ex-girlfriend's place. Which is to say, it used to be his place. And b) He wasn't even supposed to be there that night. He just agreed to show up to touch base with Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz), pick up a few things, and head home. It seemed like a pretty good party, but he couldn't have cared less. Actually, strike that: The party was a nuisance to him. The circumstances, sure; but from his general demeanor and his closed-off posture*, you get the sense he's not all that into crowded parties in general.

* This certainly isn't the first time we've seen Anders Danielsen Lie so eager to disappear. From Reprise's young phenom novelist, whose success made him so desperate to vanish, to shut out the sudden cacophony of his own notoriety, to Oslo, August 31's suicidal recovering addict, the great Norwegian actor has a unique gift for conveying a vulnerable state of mind through body language alone, his unconscious thoughts coming through quietly but clearly.

Fanny kept him waiting, and waiting, perpetually distracted by her guests. (And, perhaps, hoping Sam might loosen up a bit and actually enjoy the party instead of just moping around.) He dutifully bided his time, and sooner or later he had a drink or two, and got into a minor scuffle, and finally barricaded himself in a room containing the box of things he was there to retrieve in the first place. He didn't mean to doze off; it just happened. And when he comes to the next morning - blood smeared on the walls, undead bodies roaming around, stepping over the corpses who already took the customary bullet to the head - he finally has what he clearly wanted throughout the previous evening: He's alone. The building is mostly cleared out, the zombies having moved on to some other Parisian neighborhood. Those that remain, he either takes care of with the shotgun he found nearby, or he locks them inside whatever apartment unit they happen to have stumbled into. (Zombies are notoriously bad with deadbolts, as we all know.) He makes sure the building is inaccessible from the front door. Zombies are easily discouraged.

Closer to The Twilight Zone than The Walking Dead, Dominique Rocher's The Night Eats the World is a study in solitude, mostly - certainly more that than a traditional postapocalyptic thriller. The zombies are background details, for the most part. Sam watches them from his balcony from time to time; that first morning, he tried to quarterback a few fellow survivors to safety, to little avail. Occasionally he sits down at his drum set and gets loud, knowing his undead friends will come running, knowing he'll remain inaccessible and untouched. Just a floor or two out of their reach. Still, it's nice to have company.

They had their chance, after all. Should've checked behind every locked door, just in case.

Months pass. In a nice reversal of the standard cues, Sam goes from bearded with a thick head of hair pre-outbreak to clean-shaven and close-cropped after (the way we're accustomed to seeing Lie on screen). But razors are just the start of his survivalist stockpile. A building full of vacant apartments - with no one around to share what's been left behind - tends to make that possible. He's aware that he'll eventually run out of food. One day. But his access to every unit in the building has kept him pretty well stocked. And he has emergency reserves, too - the apartments he locked up with zombies inside. If he has to - if it comes to it, or his hand is forced - he can open those doors, kill whatever's still trapped inside, and get himself restocked.

This is all just a waiting game for Sam. Except there's nothing, really, to wait for. Death, I suppose. Survival turns to loneliness, turns to stasis. Cabin fever's just around the corner. Still he waits. He even makes a friend, a zombie played by the great Denis Lavant (!). Sam locks him in the elevator shaft - the poor thing can still reflexively clack its teeth and halfheartedly stretch its arms out toward its presumptive prey, but Sam knows he's safe. He gives his new pal a name - Alfred - and in his many moments of boredom sits on the stairwell and talks to Alfred. His random thoughts, his gripes, his frustrations. It's a cheaper than a therapist, anyway.

There's an I Am Legend-like quality to Night's framework - a solitary survivor holed up in a makeshift fortress, shotgun at the ready, stocked up on food and medicine and various other supplies. But there's no pronounced sense of heroism or romanticized survivalism to Sam. Instead it's tedium. Boredom. A particularly aimless kind, too.

Though Sam is often the only on-screen presence, the film's cast is something of an international arthouse bonanza - Lie (Norway), Lavant (France) and in a small but crucial role, Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly, The Patience Stone, Paterson). You'd be hard-pressed to find many 2018 casts cooler than this one. Because The Night Eats the World is rather aesthetically familiar - in addition to the commonness of its genre - one could argue the actors have to be the ones to enliven it. They certainly do that, from Lavant's forlorn eyes to Farahani's quiet, dignified strength.

The film is wonderfully anchored by Lie's performance - quiet but urgent, stoic but restless. We're watching someone in the midst of unusual circumstances, but what we get is a distinct sense of who Sam was even before this all started. A young man comfortable in silence - swayed toward safety, stasis. Prone to melancholy but susceptible to fits of passion, at least when he allowed himself. We may even get a sense of why his relationship came to a standstill. His stable life in this otherwise emptied-out apartment will meet the same fate. Eventually. He'll have to take action at some point. The night won't offer him such blind luck next time. Death won't always spare him.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.

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