CIFF 2013: A Thousand Times Good Night (2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Erik Poppe

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Here there be spoilers.

A Thousand Times Good Night is likely to have a large audience because its stars are the luminous Juliette Binoche, who has been in some very good pictures indeed, and Game of Thrones hottie Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Norwegian director Erik Poppe has crafted a fine-looking film that is well paced and watchable, and he’s thrown in some arty images of slow-motion near death that add tasteful cachet. But like Binoche’s patented ability to cry on demand, this film has a trick or two up its sleeve, and the insidious message for women that it delivers, while seeming to say the opposite, may be overlooked if someone does not speak up. That someone would be me.

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The film revolves around Binoche’s character, Rebecca, a war photographer who infiltrates an Afghani insurgency that uses women as human bombs to wreck terror on the opposition. She photographs the odyssey of one bomber beginning with a mock funeral that offers her the oblations she will be denied after her mission because there will be no remains to bury. Rebecca drives with the bomber to a market in Kabul, where she makes the driver let her out. An instinct to keep photographing draws the attention of the police. Rebecca feels that the nervous bomber will press the button too soon and warns the bystanders in the market to flee. She is, of course, right. After emerging in a daze from the bombing, Rebecca pops off a few more frames, and then collapses, her punctured lung bringing her close to death.

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Her marine biologist husband Marcus (Coster-Waldau) flies to Afghanistan to bring her back to their home and two daughters in Ireland. Shortly after arriving home, Marcus tells her that as soon as she is on her feet, he and the girls are leaving her. His reason is that they are all terrified that she will be killed on the job, and they can’t live with the tension. Rebecca tells her editor that she is through doing combat photography, but when her teenaged daughter Steph (Lauren Canny) wants to go to a “safe” refugee camp in Kenya with Rebecca as part of a school project, Marcus agrees. Of course, the camp is attacked, Rebecca’s work instincts kick in, Marcus finds out about it a few days after they come back, and he kicks Rebecca out of the house. Marcus is a lost cause, but can Rebecca win back her children’s affection? Will she return to war photography as the only place she has left? Will she enroll in Adrenaline Addicts Anonymous and be reunited with her family, taking it one day at a time? What’s a woman to do?

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The sexist bias of this film should be obvious to anyone, but adding children to the mix will sufficiently camouflage the issue for many audience members for whom society has provided a handy default position for women set to “mom first.” If the subject of this film were Frank Capa or Ernie Pyle, we’d expect the wife and kiddies to suck it up for the greater good. Indeed, we expect that of military families every day. But when a woman’s passion, talent, and ambition take her away from her family, when her love of humanity sometimes outstrips her mother love, wifely love, or even her love of her own life, then Houston, we have a problem. Rebecca is ballsy (yes, manlike ballsy) enough to accept the risks, but Marcus decides not just for himself, but for the children that she has to choose; after some two decades together, she finally gets hurt, and he can’t deal. When Rebecca senses something is wrong, she asks if there is another woman. Well, you know what—I think there was or this change of heart after so much time actually makes no sense.

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The film moves on to explore the relationship between Steph and her mother, one in which Steph comes to accept and admire the work her mother does. Rebecca gives her a camera in Kenya and encourages her to experiment with it. After the marriage bust-up, Steph invites her mother to see her African project at school. It ends up being a tribute to her mother and the harsh truths she exposes—indeed, her photos of the attack in Kenya garnered better security for the refugee camp, so we know she’s doing important work that gets results. So, yes, the film wants to assure us that war photography is good.

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But Poppe just has to beat Rebecca up one more time. Rebecca returns to the insurgents in Afghanistan to take some final photos to wrap the story up. Why she has to see another suicide bomber prepare herself is unclear, except as a way to get to the moral of the story Poppe wants to emphasize in case we hadn’t learned our lesson about the greatest calling a woman can aspire to. Rebecca raises her camera to photograph a young girl being fitted with explosives and starts to cry. She can’t take even one photo, so overcome is she that a terrible ideology is now sacrificing girls. The underlying message, however, is that Steph may end up following in her mother’s footsteps. What a horrible fate that would be.

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The title, A Thousand Times Good Night, comes from the balcony scene in Act Two of Romeo and Juliet, one of the most romantic moments in all of dramatic literature. Its choice for this film is a confusing one, offering mixed messages about love. On the one hand, Rebecca has a private life filled with people who love her and whom she loves. On the other hand, Rebecca’s love for humanity tugs her away from them time and time again. I think it’s clear which love director Poppe thinks is more appropriate.

A Thousand Times Good Night shows Saturday, October 12, 3:00 p.m, Monday, October 14, 8:15 p.m., and Wednesday October 16, 12:40 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)

  • gregferrara spoke:
    2nd/10/2013 to 7:44 pm

    But like Binoche’s patented ability to cry on demand, this film has a trick or two up its sleeve, and the insidious message for women that it delivers, while seeming to say the opposite, may be overlooked if someone does not speak up. That someone would be me.

    I’ve not seen this (obviously, since it’s not in wide release yet) but I do know this: I never really saw any anti-women attitudes in Billy Wilder movies until I read you pointing them out. Now, I can’t not see them and his movies bug me a lot more these days. Damn you, Ferdinand!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/10/2013 to 7:53 pm

    Yessss! My work here is done.

    BTW, it’s nice to see you on the blog, Greg. Reminds me of the early days with Fox, Bill, and Rick.

  • michaelgsmith spoke:
    2nd/10/2013 to 9:33 pm

    I don’t feel so bad about missing the P&I screening of this now. Speaking of which, I didn’t see you at Blue is the Warmest Color today. I’d be interested to hear your take on it, especially because I think it’s also problematic in terms of its depiction of women — although there’s good stuff in it as well.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/10/2013 to 6:35 am

    Hi Mike. I can’t get away from work to see a lot of these screenings, but the truth is that I’m not enticed by most of them. I had high hopes for this one, but it really let me down. I’m not surprised to hear that Blue Is the Warmest Color has some problems. It’s so hard for a man to film lesbian sex without turning off his male gaze. I look forward to your comments about it.

  • Pat spoke:
    3rd/10/2013 to 9:06 am

    Marilyn –
    I’m just skimming your review now, as I already hava a ticket for this one. But I’ll definitely be back to comment in more depth after the 12th. I am dismayed to hear of the film’s sexist angle .

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/10/2013 to 9:54 am

    Pat – It’s a watchable film, so I don’t want you to think you’ll be wasting your time. I think you will like it. I just couldn’t get past the way it seems to scold Rebecca for her choices, and her husband in this is a real dick. The fact is that he might find relief living apart from Rebecca, but the girls will always be worried about her. So it’s a selfish act on his part, forcing her to do things his way and tossing her out when she doesn’t. He sees her as an adrenaline junkie, not a committed activist for human rights.

  • Pat spoke:
    12th/10/2013 to 7:45 pm

    Marilyn – So now, having seen this film at CIFF today, I can tell you that I’m mostly in agreement with your assessment.

    I was pretty stunned that Rebecca’s husband would suddenly threaten to take off with the kids upon her return from Kabul. I’m guessing they’d been married about 15 years at this point – how did they avoid having any conversations about Marcus’ fears until this point? His anger doesn’t seem to motivated by any concern about his wife’s welfare. The whole setup is nuts and I’m with you in thinking it would have made a lot more sense if there was another woman in the picture.

    I’m fine with a film exploring the ways in which a mother is torn between a high-risk, self-sacrificing career and being present for her children. I don’t consider that a necessarily sexist premise. It certainly is a dilemma that some women face. (I ‘m reminded of this quote from an old Oprah interview with Chistiane Amnapour: “I was very cavalier when I was pregnant. I was conscious of being a woman and not letting them say, “Now you’re a mother and you can’t do this anymore. Let the guys do it.” I was a little over-the-top. I was like, “Nothing will change. I’ll take my child with me. All I need is some bulletproof diapers.” The minute my child was born, everything changed. There’s a love inside you that you never knew existed. There’s a protectiveness you never knew you were capable of. And there’s no way in hell I would take my child to the places I go. That would be completely irresponsible. I’m also much more concerned about my own safety, about surviving. “)

    Amnapour’s comments seem reasonable to me, and I think this film engages with this kind of maternal conflict with occasional success. But having the asshole husband in there who tears her from her children without any willingness to listen to or understand his wife’s sense of purpose – that throws the whole film out of kilter for me.

    Oh and I, too, HATED that whole “adrenaline junkie” bullshit which is not only leveled at Rebecca by her husband but by her friends as well.

    I wish more viewers had you discernment and keen “bullshit detection” skills, though. The nearly sold-out festival crowd this afternoon broke into wildly enthusiastic applause at the closing credits.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/10/2013 to 11:10 am

    Hi Pat – I’m glad I didn’t lead you astray, and I’m not surprised by the reaction of the audience. As I said, throwing kids into the mix confuses the anti-feminist message. As for the conflicts of motherhood, I don’t think they’re b.s. at all, but why must women who try to have both receive this kind of treatment? If the husband had been doing this and taken Steph to Kenya, it would have been a very different picture. Are we misrepresenting fathers and their mixed feelings? One film I think handles this admirably well is Carve Her Name with Pride, reviewed on this site. Szabo does what she has to do, and there’s no big condemnation of her actions – in fact, she’s a hero in the film’s and the world’s eyes.

  • Anette spoke:
    14th/10/2013 to 4:12 pm

    “The sexist bias of this film should be obvious to anyone”

    Is it? I just saw this movie, and as a feminist and movie student I often find myself being very critical of how gender is portrayed in movies. I’m not sure I agree with you here. Yes, her life is very difficult. And her family is scared for her, but we have seen the same story several times before with a male protagonist. It’s not true that a woman would not have problems with her husbond being in a war zone, this has been portrayed many times (most common when the man is a cop). The male rolemodel and father figure is also portrayed more and more in american movies. It would not be okay if a father left his family to work in a war zone, we would not expect the kids and wife “to suck it up”. The fact that we have a woman in a typical male role is actually refreshing.

    “On the one hand, Rebecca has a private life filled with people who love her and whom she loves. On the other hand, Rebecca’s love for humanity tugs her away from them time and time again. I think it’s clear which love director Poppe thinks is more appropriate.” Is it? To me it’s pretty obvious that the audience is lead to side with Rebecca, and the scene were her daughter Steph has an emotional speech at school about her mother saving the world is a big reason for this. Of course it’s problematic, it would be for any man or woman with a family and working in a job like this. But I felt very strongly that what she did as a photographer was more important.

    With this being said I really hated the last scene were she cried just because the bomber was a child. Unnecessary. But either way I liked that she went back.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/10/2013 to 4:25 pm

    Hi Anette. Thanks for stopping by. I think this film’s view of women in dangerous professions is pernicious, as I stated above. I personally don’t think that we are meant to end up being on Rebecca’s side despite Steph’s presentation – it is undercut by the last scene, as I stated before. I’m also quite sure wives and children have problems with men putting themselves in harm’s way in real life, and there are certainly some films that show the woman walking out, or at least protesting. But it is much more common for women to be supportive of their men’s decisions in film, and children are barely given an option in fiction.

  • Jane Worthington spoke:
    17th/10/2013 to 1:17 am

    Appreciated your review, however, I saw the movie as the best description of a person’s passion and did not see the man is the boss/woman needs to stay home and play “mom” version you wrote of in your review. Although I have never seen one of Mr. Poppe’s films before this one, the review came across as more critical of him, rather than the message the film delivered to me.

    Interesting to see the same titled movie, yet you and I saw 2 very different stories.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/10/2013 to 9:50 am

    Jane – I respect that people enjoy seeing a woman as a war photographer with a real passion. That certainly comes through. But with all due respect, this is still a case of a woman having to choose between work and home due to the man’s unreasonable demand. And yes, I must criticize the filmmaker because that’s who put this message on screen.

  • Anette spoke:
    17th/10/2013 to 10:49 am

    “But with all due respect, this is still a case of a woman having to choose between work and home due to the man’s unreasonable demand. And yes, I must criticize the filmmaker because that’s who put this message on screen.”

    Her character is based on the director himself and his experience with being a war photographer. This is clearly some of his own personal experiences with this type of work, and not about the character being a woman. Making the role female is a refreshing take on a typical male role, and that should be applauded. The husband being unreasonable is your subjective take on it, I don’t see it that way. I find myself understanding them both (but mostly her, as the movie is leading me to do), and I think it’s obvious that a woman would have huge problems with her husband doing this kind of work. This story is not about her being a mother (the man is actually the main caregiver here, always protecting the children like a typical “mother” would), it’s about the difficult balance between trying to save the world, and still have a family, friends and a life. It’s about having that passion and drive, but at the same time wanting stability and a family. It’s portraying the life of the people who risk their lives everyday to get the story out there, and it’s just awesome that this character happens to be a woman. She is a strong, active main character who is never sexualized and who has a full personality. This should be celebrated.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/10/2013 to 11:31 am

    Anette – I’m happy to support women in “men’s work,” and do applaud this choice. Nonetheless, that does not make the subtext of this film all right. It is a fact, not speculation, that society often condemns women who make choices that do not put their children first. It is a fact that this couple have been together at least 15 years, probably more like 20, and that she has been doing this work all that time. Therefore, it IS unreasonable for him to change the rules on her and force her to choose family or career, a choice most men are never asked to make in movies or generally in real life. Would a woman have huge problems with this? What about all the women who applaud their men’s bravery for going into combat; men who were conscientious objectors were always considered cowards. There is a gender difference. That the director was a war photographer adds to the scenes in which she is plying her trade. He is not, however, a woman.

  • Ole spoke:
    26th/10/2013 to 4:48 pm

    “On the one hand, Rebecca has a private life filled with people who love her and whom she loves. On the other hand, Rebecca’s love for humanity tugs her away from them time and time again. I think it’s clear which love director Poppe thinks is more appropriate.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but after I read your review it felt like you meant that Poppes view was that she should choose her family? Poppe has been a war photographer himself for VG in Norway, so he should have some perspectives on the issue. Since he is a movie director today, it might be that he had to make a choice himself.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/10/2013 to 10:34 pm

    Ole – Yes that’s exactly what I think. Whatever insights he brings to the film from his experiences were distorted by the fact that he’s a man and Rebecca isn’t. Female war photographers have unique challenges that he did not explore, and I haven’t been able to find one yet who has two children and a long-term marriage with someone who isn’t also in the same field. It’s not one size fits all no matter what your background.

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