Based on Pit Agarmen’s novel (a form in which this story doubtlessly worked better), Dominique Rocher’s feature debut “The Night Eats the World” focuses on an isolated guy’s boredom and loneliness after an outbreak of the flesh-eating undead leaves him trapped in a Parisian apartment building. The very definition of a well-made movie that nonetheless really needn’t have been made at all, Rocher’s entry into the canon will attract a few zombie completists, but provide little fun for the average genre buff and underwhelming reward for art-house audiences.
At the start, Sam (talented Norwegian thesp Anders Danielsen Lie, star of Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st”) shows up at his ex-girlfriend’s door, a grudging errand — evidently it was not a happy parting — made more unpleasant by the discovery that she and her new boyfriend are hosting a crowded party. Wanting only to retrieve some personal possessions she’d accidentally taken with her, he retreats to a back office room and locks the door. Upon finding the stuff he’s after, he improbably — given his agitated, annoyed mood — falls asleep in an armchair. When he wakes up, he discovers the rest of the apartment has been trashed, its walls spattered with blood.
After an alarming brief encounter with the now-undead hosts and a survey of the street outside, Sam quickly grasps the situation (apparently he’s seen the same movies we have) and barricades himself in for a long haul as quite possibly the last non-cannibalistic human left in Paris. The non-living population is fast-moving and ravenous. Fortunately for him, they’re also too stupid to break down a locked door or climb up to a second-floor balcony. Raiding other flats for weapons and supplies, he soon has control of the entire building, but inevitably struggles to keep himself amused. As do we.
“Night” is polished and lively in its assembly, particularly as far as DP Jordane Chouzenoux and editor Isabelle Manquillet’s contributions go. Still, they can only do so much to camouflage the fact that there isn’t much going on here. Sam nearly gets himself killed trying to lure a stray cat off the street; he settles instead for the very one-sided companionship of an old man (Denis Lavant) turned zombie who gawps at him from his elevator-shaft cage.
Eventually he gets some real company in the form of another not-yet-zombified survivor (exiled Iranian thesp Golshifteh Farahani). But we don’t find out much about her and, less explicably, over 90 minutes’ course, we find out very little about Sam. What was his life like “before”? Who does he miss? What did he “do”? Perhaps he was a musician — although a few scenes in which Lie pounds a handy drum set or “plays” household items (like empty wine bottles) seem less an expression of character than a demonstration of an actor’s skill set, as well as a somewhat gratuitous distraction from the general plotlessness.
There’s an action climax, more or less. But by then, we hardly care, and the fade out doesn’t provide any fresh reason to. Many zombie films have been worse-made than this one — most of them, really — yet whether they aimed for terror, muscular action, comedy, or simply gore, at least they aimed somewhere. This relatively “realistic,” first-person solo perspective fails to be fundamentally interesting because, despite its capable star, he’s given no defined character to play. Nor is that blank slate’s humanity underlined or complicated by notable narrative invention, let alone any profound existential dimensions.
Even within the fairly small number of movies about a lone (or nearly-alone) survivor facing some endless apocalyptic or purgatorial non-future, “Night” is short on ideas. Another recent literary adaptation, “The Wall” from Austrian novelist Marlen Haushofer’s bestseller, eked far more from a similarly isolated premise, to name just one example. That film felt like an enigmatic parable. “The Night Eats the World” just feels like several rudderless months stuck in a building with a guy who probably wasn’t all that fascinating before zombies struck, and isn’t any more so now. There isn’t much entertainment or other value in sensing the novelty of the situation wear thin, just as he does.
Professionally accomplished on all levels — no matter that it might have made a better 20-minute short — “Night” has already been released in France. The version screening at Tribeca is English-language, with the performers evidently speaking their limited dialogue in takes separate from those used in the French release, as opposed to being dubbed for international distribution.