Out gay writer/ director Christophe Honoré’s “On a Magical Night” is a perceptive, surrealistic comedy about a troubled marriage.
The set-up for the story is clever. Maria (Chiara Mastroianni), a law professor, ends her affair — in an awkward, but funny way — with one of her students, Asdrubal Electorat (Harrison Arevalo). As she walks home, she feels empowered, even ogling a handsome man who crosses her path. Arriving home, however, she is confronted by her husband, Richard (Benjamin Biolay), who has discovered her adultery. Maria claims it was an “insignificant fling,” and that after 20 years of marriage there shouldn’t be anything wrong with a little sex on the side. But Richard is hurt. Maria quietly sneaks out to the hotel across the street from their apartment for the night to consider their relationship.
“On a Magical Night” is titled “Chambre 212” in French, because Maria checks into room 212 at the hotel. There is an explanation, later in the film, that Civil Code 212 in France refers to “the respect, fidelity, and assistance spouses owe one another.” The cinema next door to the hotel is showing “We the Animals” and “By the Grace of God,” and, while Honoré may overdo the symbolism here, as the snow starts falling that evening the magic begins, and these symbols have meaning.
Maria finds herself meeting the 20-years-younger Richard (Vincent Lacoste) in the hotel room next door. She does not engage in dreamy nostalgia but rather has a frank discussion about how both of their lives have changed over the course of their relationship. Have Maria and Richard become sad, cynical, and selfish people after being together for so long? Does a couple grow apart gradually — and then suddenly?
Honoré raises these and other questions, but he does so with a light touch. Artificial sets allow rooms to extend on as more characters — such as Maria’s mother (Marie-Christine Adam) and grandmother (Claire Johnston) — are introduced. Overhead shots make it seem as though the couple’s apartment and the hotel room are theatrical improvisations, with removable walls and no ceilings. These are gimmicky elements, but they engage rather than distract viewers from this talky film.
Maria also meets Irène Haffner (Camille Cottin), the 40-year-old piano teacher that Richard fell in love with as a teen. If Irène was the one who got away, Maria asks, did she shape Richard into the man she fell in love with? It’s an interesting question, but one the film answers ambiguously. Meanwhile, Maria’s long list of lovers are rattled off by one character, only to turn up in the hotel room in an amusing scene.
“On a Magical Night” is best when it focuses on Maria, and her thoughts about whether to return to Richard create real dramatic tension. But Honoré does not overemphasize that, preferring to examine the relationship between Maria and Richard prismatically. There are scenes of Richard reconnecting with Irène that may cause Maria pangs of jealousy, and scenes in which a baby that could have been born suggests an idealized, imagined life. Here, Honoré is examining issues of fate, of regret, and of lives wasted.
For all of the “what ifs” the film explores, it is a shame that “On a Magical Night” ultimately boxes Maria into a corner and uses Barry Manilow’s cheesy “Could it Be Magic” as the escape hatch. This otherwise marvelous film ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
Mastroianni, who won the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for her performance, is lovely as Maria. Her expressions and body language convey both her doubt and her desire. The bedroom scenes Mastroianni has with Lacoste are romantic. Cottin makes an interesting character of Irène, and in a fun in-joke, Carole Bouquet, who was of two actresses playing the same role decades ago in “That Obscure Object of Desire,” plays Irène at age 60. Only Biolay seems underused as the older Richard.
“On a Magical Night” will enchant viewers open to the film’s premise. The magic here is how Honoré provides deep insights into the nature of long-term relationships in the guise of a sexy, fluffy comedy.
ON A MAGICAL NIGHT | Directed by Christophe Honoré | In French, with English subtitles | Strand Releasing | Film at Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema | tinyurl.com/ycd5nje7
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