It’s the younger generation who are opaque, specifically Muriel’s orphaned grandson Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein, who starred in Techine’s previous Being 17) and his fiancee Lila (Oulaya Amamra), a Muslim who grew up alongside him and has converted him to her faith. Secretly, the pair are radicals who plan to leave the country and fight in Syria, an expedition to be financed by any means necessary.
Set over a few days in early spring, the film is structured like a thriller: what Alex and Lila have in mind emerges only gradually, but we’re shown enough of their private conversations to keep us a few steps ahead of Muriel, who doesn’t catch on until halfway that anything serious is afoot.
Balancing points of view is of central importance to Techine, who has been making films for almost as long as Deneuve (this is their eighth together) and is master of a unobtrusive cinematic language that feels classical and modern. Mostly this consists of handheld medium shots with the camera roughly at eye level, following the paths of the characters as they move to and fro.
Actors are often positioned at opposite ends of the frame, with one significantly more in the foreground that the other. But the widescreen compositions are constantly shifting, affording us more one perspective in the most immediate visual sense.
Indeed, much of the drama of Farewell to the Night is visual and spatial, arising from the specifics of the setting. Muriel’s horses, for instance, are more than local colour and, towards the climax, an unexpected physical move made by one of the characters shifts the whole course of the plot.
The film can be viewed as a topical “social problem” drama: we hear of an election taking place, with a soaring vote for the National Front. On this level, there’s a clumsiness to some of the efforts to ensure “balance”, such as the token inclusion of a “moderate” Muslim character, Muriel’s business partner Youssef (Mohamed Djouhri).
But Techine is too much of an artist to settle for a simple message along the lines of “cosmopolitan France good, radical Islam bad”. The complexity of his approach is especially evident in his handling of Lila, who like most of us has several different personalities depending on the needs of the moment.
As an aged care worker, she’s demure and mostly obliging; alone with her lover, she’s physically affectionate and spontaneous, at one point leaping into a lake fully dressed. But her body language can tighten up in an instant as she assumes the posture of the true believer, or her nerves can get the better of her, leading to tics such as tapping a foot uncontrollably.
It could be said Muriel and Lila have a good deal in common, especially in light of the death of Alex’s mother, whom both women in their different ways try to replace. But part of Techine’s strength is that he lets us ponder such questions for ourselves: whatever his characters reveal or hide, he respects the larger mystery of personality, whereby contrasting threads are somehow braided together into the whole.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.