Zach Clark is the writer/director of Modern Love is Automatic, Vacation!, White Reindeer and Little Sister. His films have played across the United States and Europe at festivals including SXSW, Edinburgh, Outfest, BAMcinemaFest and Stockholm. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
“Always follow the clues in your dreams,” one character says to another.
“Even when they’re terrifying?”
“Especially when they’re terrifying.”
The best movie I saw in 2014 premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a year earlier and was not given a theatrical release in the United States. I had seen the trailer for Yann Gonzalez’s You and the Night while perusing the line-up for New York’s Newfest in September 2013, and for whatever reason didn’t make it to the screening. But its images stuck with me, and at some point thereafter entered a space somewhere in the back of my mind reserved for movies I’d like to see but probably never will. When it landed on Netflix a year later with no discernible fanfare, I’d almost forgotten it. Because it was at best a movie I thought I remembered having heard something about, I had the rare luxury of entering it almost entirely free of preconceptions.
The majority of You and the Night is set in the confines of a single room – a minimally designed space that plays grays off reds with some scant injections of neon. Aside from a few couches, the room contains a single prop – a simple, square glass structure called a “sensory jukebox” that plays music based on the emotion of the person interacting with it. The movie itself is a kind of sensory jukebox, set in an undetermined future by way of the past, and driven equally by the emotions and desires of its small cast of characters and the pulsing, ethereal score by French electronic band M83 (which counts the director among its members). You and the Night is a thoroughly, passionately artificial film, and like the greatest works of artifice before it – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows – it uses its glossy surfaces as an access point to a deeper, more truthful emotional level than most works of so-called “naturalism” could ever hope to achieve.
The plot is simple: a well-to-do couple and their transgender maid have invited a small group of people to an undisclosed location for a midnight orgy (“the snobbiest orgy,” as it’s described at one point). The guests are identified by their archetypes – The Stud, The Slut, The Star, and The Teen. Efforts to get the party started are thwarted by various circumstances; each attendee has their own story to tell and brings their own set of hang-ups to the proceedings. Emotions are bared. Body parts are, too. The set-up initially seems to have the simplicity of a play, but Gonzalez’s unfolding of the narrative is uniquely cinematic. You and the Night is a movie that is in love with movies, and unashamed of its own inherent movie-ness. It’s exhilarating to see something this devoted to the tricks and techniques of its medium, simultaneously stripped down and souped-up, as if each dolly move and lighting cue were being discovered in its execution.
Gonzalez’s style is immediately striking, as well as highly referential. An early ride on a stationary motorcycle, drenched in blue and red light, is lifted directly from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Belle captive. A lengthy backstory toward the film’s end dives deep into the sepulchral dreamscapes of Jean Rollin. The influence of both Radley Metzger and Jean Genet is visible, too. Gonzalez doesn’t so much reappropriate these images as reinvestigate them, presenting them again so he can look below their surface and unlock the emotions missing from their ’70s art-smut origins. There is a message and meaning at the heart of You and the Night, a warm-fuzzy feeling that oozes through the pathos, that healing begins when we discard our inhibitions. The world would truly be a better place if we were all fucking each other.
It’s not often that I fall in love with a new movie as hard as I fell for You and the Night. I believe the first time I watched was almost at the end of the 2014, in it the midst of assembling my top 10 list for this very website. The decision to place something I’d just seen above all the critically lauded releases from the year felt a little bratty in whatever miniscule cultural context a top 10 list can have, but when I rewatched the film this past Wednesday, the decision felt entirely justified. This may very well be one of my favorite movies of all time, beautifully executed and somehow tailor-made for my exact tastes. It feels simultaneously like a shame that a distributor wasn’t willing to take a chance on Gonzalez’s film and release it in a bigger, broader manner, and a miracle that it was even released in this country at all. Thank you, France, for creating a space where artists like Gonzalez can create this kind of daring, gorgeous work with the necessary amount of resources.
You and the Night is an existential, new wave, erotic haunted house movie where glycerin tears carry the same weight as real ones. It encourages its audience to explore humanity’s deepest, darkest desires as a means of personal growth and spiritual healing. It’s very funny and it’s an actual, honest-to-god masterpiece. Watch it with a small group of friends you’d like to get know better.
You and the Night is available of Netflix through Wednesday, April 18.
Lola Montès is streaming on Hulu.
The films of Jean Rollin are streaming on Fandor and Amazon Prime.