Perhaps it’s presumptuous to say, but I sensed during The Passengers of the Night that I was watching another film in the line of The Fabelmans or (God forbid) Belfast: a nostalgic reverie inspired by lockdown-enforced personal reflection. Though in this case, with Full Moon in Paris taking for Mikhaël Hers the place of whatever child-friendly movie little Stevie Spielberg or Kenny Branagh were gazing up at in wonder, with that film’s star Pascale Ogier and the way her life was tragically cut short curiously haunting the proceedings of this ostensible family drama.
A film that can be accurately described as very French (archival footage of Jacques Rivette from the Claire Denis-directed documentary even appears), and furthermore evoking Renoir, Pialat, and (for a more recent comparison) Mia Hansen-Løve in its elliptical yet always character-driven narrative, Hers’ film is a case of one that never quite shatters your soul the way its influences do, but represents a clearly wise filmmaker and person giving you some gentle reassurance.
Passengers begins with a prologue on May 10th, 1981, the night the left-wing Mitterrand government was elected (a Jacobin article will quickly inform you of the legislative disappointment that followed this euphoric moment) and furthermore a time of thriving (as depicted in the aforementioned Rohmer film) youth culture in Paris. Yet soon moving three years forward, we find Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a single mother of two struggling financially and emotionally, her husband having left her after he lost interest during her battle with breast cancer. Her two teenage children Matthias (Quito Rayon Richter) and Judith (Megan Northam) have their own interests typical to their age, adding some grief to her already hectic life.
As someone who has the radio on in her apartment, she applies to an assistant position at a program hosted by veteran Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart), who fields many deranged callers between playing John Cale’s “Dying on the Vine.” But as the jaded DJ notes, television has caused radio to lose “its monopoly of the night,” one of many grand changes in the air. Further complications arise when she nobly takes in the young Talulah (Noée Abita) despite not needing another mouth to feed. Perhaps a bit of a manic pixie girl (both punk and goth in her attire), the troubled young woman, a runaway and drug addict (thus the Ogier comparison) has the initial presentation more of symbol than character; in the opening prologue her shadow is cast on the Parisian subway map, and later (in a strange stylistic choice) her face becomes superimposed over Elisabeth. Initially a specter, yes, but through patient storytelling she’s developed into a real character.
The overall skill of Hers’ film is how smartly he portrays these characters, chiefly how realistically Elisabeth’s children age into different forms of emotional maturity; Matthias’ romantic interest in Talulah is a natural bump on the road that leads to him considering others in a greater fashion. Passengers spans seven years in these characters’ lives and, to its genuine credit, doesn’t cornily articulate how a life of modesty accumulates into something grand when spending it being good to others. That’s a definite accomplishment in an age where most bourgeois-approved art is supposed to tell you something along those lines. Its nice-core approach can feel like a slight limitation (notably the assurance of Elisabeth’s father throughout her tribulations, like the warm shoulder the film itself offers) and it leans a little too hard into the maudlin near the end, syrupy music and all, but a fake bill of humanist goods isn’t being sold.
The Passengers of the Night opens in limited release on June 30.