When Josephine Peary first shoots a polar bear, she’s extremely pleased with herself for having brought down such a big animal. The Inuit man who skins it, however, tries to explain to her that it was actually a fairly small bear. Their perspectives are just different—a problem that can be transferred to “Nobody Wants the Night”, the film that opened this year’s Berlinale.
The film strives for greatness, but in the end it comes up short. The story of Josephine Peary (Juliette Binoche) and her journey to the Arctic turned out rather pale. The initial setting is very promising: in 1908, an American high society lady by the name of Josephine Peary, against the will of her husband, accompanies him on his expedition to the North Pole. She wants to share with him the moment when he becomes the first person to reach that mythical place. She ignores the warnings of the experienced Artic-explorer Bram (Gabriel Byrne) that winter’s on its way. Ultimately, she would give birth to her daughter in the icy cold, who would be christened by the Inuit a “white baby”, because her skin was so white. Accompanied by Bram and two Inuits with sleds, she sets out in the direction of her husband Robert—but she’s on her own shortly before reaching the basecamp. Only the Inuit woman Allaka (Rinko Kikuchi) stands beside her side in the desolate wastes. Both women come to depend on each other, and soon it becomes clear that the rich American and the native Inuit share more in common than Josphine had thought: Allaka is also expecting a child from Robert.
Love as drive
The Spanish director Isabel Coixet (by the way: one of two female directors ever to open the Berlinale), has found for her story of Josephine and Allake beautiful and piercingly harsh imagery: snow cascading down a slope, clouds building into storm, and the enduring, vast, white expanse of the Artic wasteland. The people and their actions sadly aren’t able to make this land comprehendible, something that the spectacular performances of the two actresses, Binoche and Kikuchi could not change. Josephine Peary was an exceptional woman, who rejected traditional gender rolls at an early time. She found it totally normal to accompany her husband on this expedition. But it was not Josephine’s urge for exploration, but rather her love for her husband that made her undertake the journey. She would like to stand by his side and experience with him his great moment—and that’s why she’s made the trip.
Of course, the “clash of cultures” between Josephine and Allaka offers a couple of entertaining moments. Josephine invites Allake to a “thank you” meal in her hut (Allaka herself lives in an igloo) and forces her to eat with a fork and knife. And this scene does a good job depicting the racist attitude with which the white artic explorers (Bram excepted) regarded the “Eskimos”. Josephine tries to be sophisticated and open—but she isn’t. Sometimes Coixet puts too much emphasis on this contrast: Josephine eats in a tent a neatly-arranged dinner while outside Bram chews on dried meat. Josephine is appalled by the bare breasted Inuit women, as the camera pans to Josephine, buttoned to her neck, sitting on a bench.
It’s often evident that “Nobody Wants the Night” fears it isn’t conveying its message clear enough. That’s why there exists a narrator to comment on the events, and—one could also say—explain them. For example: the scene in which Josephine is saved in the end by one of her husband’s colleagues, laid down on a sled and covered under furs, doesn’t really need a narrator to accurately describe what is happening.
The good news: The Berlinale has just begun, and a rather weak start mustn’t signify anything.
Translated from German
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