A Norwegian-made, English-language film set in Ireland, Kenya and Afghanistan, and starring French luminary Juliette Binoche, would seem to wear its internationalism on its sleeve. Yet globe-trotting, at least to war zones, forms the central conflict in “A Thousand Times Goodnight,” Erik Poppe’s gripping tale of a dedicated photojournalist torn between passionate involvement with her work and commitment to her worried family. Deftly sidestepping both melodrama and family-values messaging, Poppe imbues the film with enormous emotional resonance, brilliantly grounded by his leading lady. The absence of subtitles and the presence of Binoche should open global arthouse doors for this Montreal fest grand prizewinner.
Curiously, the film opens much like the recent Jennifer Jason Leigh starrer “The Moment,” about a female shutterbug narrowly escaping death in a terrorist explosion. But Poppe’s visceral film draws the viewer more deeply into its heroine’s obsession: Photographer Rebecca (Binoche) is at once horrified and fascinated by the rituals surrounding an all-female suicide-bomber group, the camera alternating between seer and seen, each an integral part of the other, as the chosen femme bomber is cleansed, wrapped in explosives and tearfully hugged. Rebecca even insists on accompanying the martyr-to-be into Kabul, where her inability to stop snapping pictures causes everything to detonate prematurely.
Poppe, himself a photojournalist in the ’80s, lends Rebecca a serene ability to balance all-consuming work with affectionate downtime with her family by the sea. But to her marine-biologist husband, Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Rebecca’s chosen profession serves her addiction to the adrenaline rush of danger, while to her teenage daughter, Steph (Lauryn Canny), it represents inexplicable abandonment. Rebecca’s latest near-fatality proves the final straw; faced with a war-or-family ultimatum, she chooses the latter.
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Ironically, it is Steph’s growing appreciation for her mother’s photographs, coinciding with a school-fostered humanitarian interest in African conflicts, that encourages Rebecca, with hubby’s blessing, to accept a “safe” assignment to a Kenyan refugee camp with Steph. When violence unexpectedly erupts, Rebecca sends her daughter to safety but cannot personally tear herself away.
In the ensuing melee, Rebecca ducks into a tent, sporadically popping up to take more photos, apparently oblivious to the danger as armed marauders methodically murder people in surrounding tents. The fierce, angry desire, articulated earlier to her daughter, that drives her to force others to see what she sees, to care about what they can no longer avoid confronting, is here made physically manifest as Rebecca’s finger on the camera button acts in rhythmic response to the bursts of gunfire.
The film distinguishes itself from Hollywood-made photojournalist actioners like “Under Fire,” in which the movie pivots around the hero questioning his neutrality in the face of political injustice. Here the viewer becomes so totally invested in the heroine’s compulsion to record what she witnesses that, paradoxically, the action itself seems less subjectively colored.
Lenser John Christian Rosenlund, who collaborated with Poppe on the helmer’s previous gem, “Troubled Water,” lets bright Afghani and African landscapes and northern-lit Irish seascapes exist on the same color palette, underscoring Binoche’s one-world viewpoint. Armand Amar’s score subtly builds tension.