A mix of dreams, nightmares, fears and sexuality, filtered through a mordant Belgian sensibility, “Black Night” envelops rather than illuminates the viewer. First feature by writer-academic Olivier Smolders, whose occasional shorts the past 20 years have been in a similarly Expressionist vein, is perfectly tailored for fantasy festivals and other specialist events but, despite its visual merits, won’t travel far beyond Euro arthouse niches.
Introing the film at South Korea’s PiFan fest — where it won Best Film — Smolders urged the audience not to concentrate on understanding all the pieces but to treat the whole “like a dream.” It’s the kind of movie that, like Peter Greenaway’s oeuvre, looks as if the footnotes have fallen off the page. (Coincidentally, Greenaway’s longtime producer, Kees Kasander, is credited as Dutch co-producer.)
Framed as a theater piece, complete with old style proscenium arch, film starts with key images — black night, falling snowflakes, traumatic childhood memories. They’re the recollections of a grown man, Oscar (Fabrice Rodriguez), who’s trying to get to grips with his past (and especially his maybe dead sister) in seshes with a doctor.
Immaculate and very buttoned up, Oscar is an entomologist at a Kafkaesque museum, where he painstakingly catalogs dead insects. Outside, the world is in perpetual night, apart from brief, 15-second spells — announced by an Orwellian radio broadcaster — when daylight floods the planet.
Saturated, non-primary colors (sourced and manipulated on DV) conjure up a world in which David Lynch or the Terry Gilliam of “Brazil” would feel at home. So, too, subsequent events: Returning to his funereal apartment, administered by a crazed Russian landlady, Oscar finds a naked African woman in his bed, amidst all the jars and cages containing various creepy-crawlies.
The woman, who works at the museum, has some kind of mysterious illness and has seemingly come to Oscar’s bed to die. They make love, and gradually her dead body takes on the shape of a giant pupa, which Oscar lovingly tends, like one of his breeding specimens. What finally emerges from the pupa is supposedly linked to his own childhood memories of himself, his sister and white-hunter father in colonial Africa (seen in B&W home movie footage) — and sparks a longer spell of bright daylight outside.
Despite its contrariness in providing much explanation, pic does maintain interest on a purely visual level. Smolder’s precise helming, flecked with straightfaced humor, is inventive enough, and beyond the callow central figure other roles are colorfully drawn. Semi-baroque, vaguely ’20s production design is also full of detail, and transfer to 35mm is flawless.