French Film Festival UK 2022 Review: The Passengers of the Night

The Passengers of the Night (Les passagers de la nuit) screens at various cinemas across the country as part of the annual French Film Festival UK. A contemplative, quietly absorbing piece from director Mikhaël Hers, this feature showcases another interesting and compellingly layered performance from leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Penned by Maud Ameline, Mariette Désert and Hers, the 1984-set The Passengers of the Night introduces us to Elisabeth (Gainsbourg), left by her husband and navigating her changing life with two teenage children. Elisabeth soon gets a job manning the switchboard at a late-night radio station, here she meets vulnerable homeless youth Talulah (Noée Abita) who she takes under her wing.

Hers captures a Paris with a romantic nostalgia, opening the feature in the nights of the 1984 French protests, yet there is a warmth to this depiction as people jubilantly fill the Parisian streets. Exploring the bustle and energy of the streets in the dead of night, Hers goes on to depict the story of those who stories paint this darkened canvas with a calm, hazy style. Mixing in archive footage into the Pairs crafted by cinematographer Sébastien Buchmann further immerses us in the 1980s setting.

Complimenting this quiet ambience is a sensitive and absorbing leading turn from Gainsbourg. Elisabeth finds herself at a crossroads in life – faced with supporting her children and with working for the first time – the matriarch soon falls into the world of enigmatic, dusky late night radio working alongside host Vanda Dorval (an enjoyable Emmanuelle Béart), a Dietrichian presence clad in a waistcoat, high collared shirt and tie, as she soundtracks the darkened hours of Paris’s nighthawks.

The Passengers of the Night gradually unveils the purpose awakened by Elisabeth’s new job as she soon comes into contact with vulnerable youth Talulah. Gainsbourg is impressively watchable as she explores Elisabeth’s supporting of the older teen with a sympathetic presence. Hers’ direction is subtle and refuses to play with grandiose emotion – instead taking a calm, observational and ultimately realistic approach as we sleepily take in the busyness of Elisabeth’s transitioning home life.

Covering an impressive amount of narrative ground in its runtime, The Passengers of the Night moves into the exploration of the relationship between Elisabeth’s son Matthias (Quito Rayon Richter) and Talulah. Richter is impressive in capturing Matthias’s growing bond with Talulah, who proves a worryingly unreliable presence unable to meet his expectations of her. A time shift to 1988 captures the family’s varying dynamic over time and the transient nature of lives and relationships, continuing to do so in a calm and steady manner with a subtle exploration of emotion.

A soundtrack comprised of some underground eighties synthpop gems and contemporary new nostalgia-influenced synth from the likes of She Male, adds further conviction to the narrative time period. Whilst Anton Sanko’s delicate score, and a muted colour palette capturing the smoky night-time settings, ensures The Passengers of the Night is quietly absorbing throughout.

Hers maintains a steady control over the mellow yet impressive tone and events of The Passengers of the Night, which is further anchored by a demure yet interesting performance from Gainsbourg.

The Passengers of the Night screens as part of the French Film Festival UK. See screening details here.

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