French writer-director Christophe Honoré’s “On a Magical Night” explores the state of a marriage through a woman’s absurdist fantasy. Described as a comedy, it never quite reaches the fizzy heights it aspires to but yields strong performances and some fascinating passages within its experimental framework.
Chiara Mastroianni plays Maria, a sexy, middle-aged law professor who beds men, specializing in her students, with the gusto of an athlete and the ardor of a collector, but the detachment of an accountant. As she strides down a Parisian thoroughfare, she ogles males like so much fresh fruit.
Her husband, Richard (Benjamin Biolay), rather unconvincingly discovers her infidelity when he sees a series of sexy texts from her latest lover, Asdrubal Electorat (Harrison Arevalo), the mere mention of whose name turns Maria on. Hurt and disappointed, claiming he’s never been unfaithful, Richard retreats to their bedroom while Maria departs their Montparnasse flat for the boutique hotel immediately across the street, where she can conveniently observe him through the windows.
She quickly falls into a snowy dream, which includes a miniature Wes Anderson-like model of the neighborhood, and where she cryptically informs Richard she wants to be alone. Not alone without him, just alone.
When Maria awakens (or does she?), a 25-year-old version of Richard (Vincent Lacoste) reclines on a bed in the room next to hers. “I find your attitude unacceptable,” he chastises her. “You’re sad, cynical and coldly selfish,” he adds (ouch!) before they engage in sex and a round of “where did our love go?”
Young Richard then acts as a sort of tour guide while various figures confront Maria about her past. There’s Irène Haffner (Camille Cottin), Richard’s piano teacher who initiated him sexually at 14 — a sure sign you’re watching a European film — before losing him to Maria when he was 22. Maria’s dead mother and grandmother appear, with the latter noting that Maria has slept with more men than the previous five generations of women in her family had combined.
There were a lot of lovers. They all show up and the hotel room becomes very, very crowded.
The film grows tedious at times but eventually evolves into a deeper contemplation of love, romance, sex and marriage. It works best in a later series of roundelays between Maria, young Richard, Irène and contemporary Richard as they question one another’s desires, regrets and lapsed expectations, hashing out what led to the current state of affairs.
That main quartet, charming and attractive, invests their characters with passion, intelligence and not a little sadness. None of it makes much sense in a narrative frame, but that seems beside the point. These are, after all, Maria’s projections. Who among us doesn’t spend too much time imagining what other people are thinking or how they are living?
The prolific Honoré, also a novelist and children’s book author, is more interested in asking the questions than providing outright answers. “On a Magical Night” (originally titled “Chambre 212,” a nod to a French civil code that states “spouses owe each other respect, fidelity and assistance”) is not exactly the romp a comedy tag might imply, but instead generates some pensive moments involving relationships, men and women, and our older selves versus our younger selves, that feel worthy of our time.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Available May 8 via Laemmle Virtual Cinema and Alamo-At-Home Los Angeles Virtual Cinema