Sunday, April 22, 2012

Endless Nightmare on a Sleepless Night: Sleepless Night (Nuit Blanche) at Tribeca 2012

Europe has been kicking out the smart action jams in recent days, perhaps making up for decades of being looked to as the epicenter of slow moving, contemplative, “arthouse” cinema.  The house is on fire.  Earlier this year, Headhunters came to us from Norway proving that movies can indeed be slickly entertaining, suspenseful, and express some deep sentiments at the same time.  This year’s Tribeca Film Festival has included in its lineup Sleepless Night, a French thrillride fresh off of receiving enthusiastic fist pumps at the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest in 2011.  At once a relentless heart in your throat exercise in nonstop tension, it also explores corruption within institutions of authority, and the modern family unit as it faces the threat of collapse.               

The first scene zeroes in on two masked men intercepting a car with a trunk loaded full of cocaine. A violent sequence, teetering on the brink of spinning completely out of control, results in the drugs and a life being taken.  Over the course of a few tense minutes, we learn the thieves are actually members of the police, internal affairs is waist deep in the crime scene, and the son of one of the involved officers has been kidnapped by the drug lord whose supply was snatched.  Rather than take us slowly down the path of an individual’s downward spiral, we are thrust immediately into this chaotic funnel at the sharpest point in its descent.  With a frantic pins and needle score rising in and out of the background, this is panic-stricken cinema at its most unnerving.  

What follows is a nightmarish pursuit, carried on throughout most of the film in the decadent multi-chambered nightclub owned by mob boss Marciano, as Vincent tries to rescue his son.  Before it is all over, situations will drastically change shape, the narrative will take sharp turns, and, to point out another quality shared with Headhunters, characters that command our attention from beginning to end change dramatically, but without falling pray to jarring inconsistencies.

If this sounds like another well constructed thrill ride that rests its laurels on unexpected twists, rest assured there is more to it than that.  Through accomplished use of intense rushes of sound and dizzying visuals, director Frederic Jardin brings the audience as close as possible to experiencing the physical unease of the protagonist.  As Vincent passes back and forth through the club’s labyrinth of rooms, things truly Enter the Void.  He is squashed between hordes of blissed out revelers, barely able to move when time is of the essence, giving us a similar out of control, floating, and helpless sensation to that sprawling experimental film by fellow French director Gaspar Noe.  But the high stakes sense of urgency commands our full attention, no drifting into passive indifference.

Even the violence is at times murky and dreamlike.  The most exhilarating fight scene, which unfolds in a kitchen, feels weighed down by the characters’ fatigue. It is a painful slog through the mud, as surrounding objects are thrust or thrown wildly to put the oponent off balance, or simply to bludgeon one another to a pulp.  For not flashing by in a blur of finesse, the action feels all the more real and makes for an extremely riveting scene.

What really throws things for a loop, though, is how fun it all is at the same time.  Like when Vincent crawls across a dance floor, trying to blend in amidst a crowd of partygoers moving rhythmically to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”  Again, as is the case with Headhunters, it is a very confident film that seems to enjoy walking the line between grave seriousness and giddy fun.  

In a move that may suggest Jardin’s awareness of his prowess, he throws in a tried and true Hollywood trope like the protagonist getting the glamorous girl (only here it happens after unleashing an uncharacteristically vicious assault on her would be victimizer), and then minutes later, as if to say this is tired and done before, she along with the premise are left behind.  On to the next intense exchange.

The movie’s final moments provides another pulling of the rug from underneath our feet, leaving the "out with a bang" convention for more thought provoking territory.  It reminds us that while battling over drugs and large sums of money might make for glamorous heroics, there are other tests of one’s valor that strike closer to home and are just as important.

It is also a rare case where the lingering prospect of a sequel, however slight, left me with a grin rather than a groan.

Sleepless Nights screens on April 22, 26, and 27. Go to the Tribeca homepage for details.

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