“Nobody Wants the Night,” claims the title of Isabel Coixet’s internationally flavored Arctic opus, but auds may well find themselves succumbing to slumber anyway. Though it hardly wants for sincerity or ambition, Coixet’s portrait of an arduous mid-career expedition by American explorer Josephine Peary is dramatically as pallid and lifeless as the frozen tundra on which it takes place, burdened with a hokey romanticism that doesn’t complement its quasi-feminist purview. Despite the name presence of Juliette Binoche and Rinko Kikuchi — both ill cast and ill served by Miguel Barros’ windy, maudlin screenplay — and a profile-boosting slot as this year’s Berlinale opener, this particular “Night” is unlikely to see the light of day far beyond the festival circuit.
After the delicious Continental millefeuille of last year’s Berlin curtain-raiser, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the festival has chosen to launch its 2015 edition with a stodgier brand of Europudding: As promised by a surfeit of production company and financier credits at the top, many hands have made heavy work of this Spanish-French-Bulgarian co-production, which further muddles its global credentials by casting a Frenchwoman as the Maryland-born Peary, with the Japanese Kikuchi as her Inuit ally. This is familiar border-busting territory for Barcelona native Coixet, who has cultivated a distinctive line in patchwork production since 1996’s “Things I Never Told You.” Yet while one could argue that the no-man’s-land milieu of the near-North Pole is conducive to such an approach, the film’s pat moralizing about cross-cultural understanding rings somewhat false when neither its Inuit nor its American contingent feels especially authentic.
The film gives itself a loose narrative get-out clause with an onscreen caveat proclaiming itself “inspired by real characters.” It does, however, commit to real names and locations in mapping out the essentials of Robert E. Peary’s final assault on the North Pole in 1908 — a notionally successful mission undermined by a subsequent battle for bragging rights with rival explorer and former colleague Frederick Cook. This compromised accomplishment, briefly explained in a crammed series of concluding title cards, is a movie in itself — and was duly portrayed in the 1998 TV film “Glory & Honor.” But it’s of secondary interest to Coixet and Barros, who keep Peary an invisible presence while focusing on his wife Josephine’s steely efforts to catch up with him.
Co-star Clarence Smith’s sporadic and entirely extraneous voiceover informs us that Josephine left the couple’s home in Washington — described, in Barros’ increasingly purple scripting, as a haven of “sweet intimacy under soft linen sheets” — for her husband’s vacated winter base camp at Ellesmere Island, Canada, in the fall of 1908. Having trudged this far, with a bloody-mindedness belying her high-society refinement and unfit-for-purpose hoop skirts, she is informed by Irish supervisor Bram Trevor (a glumly hirsute Gabriel Byrne) that it’d be unwise to tail Peary any further, with weather conditions worsening and the daylight-free winter drawing in.
Naturally, this manner of insistent mansplaining only intensifies our protag’s drive, as she brazenly pushes on through the snowy abyss, shedding sleigh dogs and less motivated male cohorts one by one. When chief Eskimo guide Ninq (Orto Ignatiussen) finally throws in the towel, Josephine is stranded at another of her husband’s abandoned rest points with only naive Inuit girl Alaka (Kikuchi) for company. The pic’s second half, then, is effectively a fixed two-hander, as the women — mutually uncomprehending to the point of hostility — gradually locate common ground in order to survive. It emerges that Alaka has her own reasons for wishing to track down Peary, which makes the film less Bechdel-compliant than its frontier-female premise might suggest: “You don’t have to bring him up in every conversation,” Josephine tetchily chides the younger woman, as if monitoring the script’s own persistent patriarchal undertow.
Given the severe setup and overriding lack of dramatic incident in this dominant section of the film, Coixet’s intention may have been a “Persona”-style dual character study, as the women’s psychologies shift and collaborate over the course of one long, wholly isolated winter sleep. Neither the melodramatic thrust of Barros’ writing nor the restless mannerisms of Coixet’s direction, however, comes close to achieving such concentration. In line with the po-faced solemnity of the material, Jean-Claude Larrieu’s frequently handheld camerawork appears to have been discouraged from basking in the majesty of the scenery: The film’s 50 shades of snow coalesce into a modest gray in many scenes, a visual reflection of Josephine’s growing sense of despondence. Even the film’s digitally realized avalanche shots are restrained; Lucas Vidal’s prominent orchestral score skulks more than it soars. (Meanwhile, Coixet’s use of a single iris fade early in proceedings is bizarrely incongruous with the whole — a solitary fragment of the throwback adventure treatment Peary’s story could have sustained.)
Played by an unusually unconvincing Binoche — her accent roaming as recklessly as the woman she plays — Josephine comes off as little more than a petulant pill; beyond the simple desire for spousal reunion, the inner curiosity and wanderlust fueling her hazardous mission is largely unaddressed. Broken-tongued and tattoo-scarred, Kikuchi commits to Alaka’s girlish savant qualities with more conviction, but is treated throughout as an exotic innocent; rarely does the camera afford her a perspective equal to Josephine’s. What poignant notes the performers succeed in striking as this (seemingly) sexless sisterly romance comes to fruition, moreover, are strenuously underlined by writing that rarely lets a gesture go verbally unexplained. “Can any roof cover her emptiness?” muses our male narrator, with glib concern, of Josephine; for a female explorer, it would appear, merely defeating the elements isn’t quite enough.