Nuit #1’s opening 15 minutes consist of one long, graphic, passionate, erotic, and strikingly real sex scene. The couple is Nikolaï (Dimitri Storoge) and Clara (Catherine de Léan). They have met at a club and have come back to Nikolaï’s apartment for what, we can assume, they both know will be a one night stand. The sex in director Anne Émond’s gut-punch of a debut is a kind of overture. After it, we get two long soliloquies divided by a brief interlude that shows the man and the woman on the street in the rain, standing and wrestling, after Clara flees apartment in the middle of the night. Finally, we get a coda, Clara, who is grade school teacher, listening to her students read a poem. Nuit #1 begins with bodies and ends with language. That alone tells you a lot of what Émond is up to here: an extraction of the meaning of an encounter.
After Clara tries to leave Nikolaï’s apartment after he has fallen asleep, he chases her down and brings her back in, setting up his meandering musings on sex, life, and love. “Modern life makes me sick,” he says. “Modern love makes me sick. Modern women make me sick. It’s like they’re men.” This could all come tumbling out like pages from a teenager’s diary, but Émond’s script is too good, lean and candid, honest but unafraid to mix in a poetic flair. This isn’t how people usually talk – or at least not this much all at once – but for all its dim and smoky apartment realism, Nuit #1 is a kind of fantasy, satisfying the longing to take two magnetic, yet closed-off souls and crack them open like eggs.
Both Storoge and de Léan are extraordinary, particular in their pacing of all the dialogue. There’s tension in what’s at stake, nothing less than an understanding of the meaning and purpose of an individual in the world, but also in how honesty and misunderstand can prick the ego and the heart. Nikolaï is a failed artist unable to apply himself in the menial jobs he is forced to take. Clara is a school teacher who spends her nights and weekends losing herself in drugs and music and sex. Both, we come to realize, share one thing: a disappointment with life.
Émond doesn’t lash out or condemn the sexual despair we are confronted with, nor does she demonize fetish or desire, as, say, Paul Schrader might. Rather, sex, even in its lurid details, comes across as astoundingly beautiful – even more so when Nikolaï describes the encounter back to Clara, detail by detail, droplet of sweat by droplet of sweat. Nuit #1 confronts us with a vision of modern life that has left us adrift, lonely and grasping for meaning. There’s scant resolution to it all in the drama, but the film itself provides a kind of hope, hope in the way art and language can soothe by making some sense out of all the noise.