Most of us, in our romantic lives, meditate here and there on the other roads we might have traveled, and movies are uniquely equipped to channel those alternate-universe-of-love possibilities. That’s the idea at the (broken) heart of “Casablanca.” And the fantasy of getting to see the turns your life didn’t take play out right in front of you underlies such disparate movies as “Sliding Doors,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “La La Land.” “On a Magical Night,” the new film from the writer-director Christophe Honoré, treats that fantasy in a way that’s original but oddly familiar, turning it into a gentle surrealist bedroom farce. But at first we think we’re watching a movie that could have been called “Memoirs of a Cougar.”
Chiara Mastroianni, with flaming red hair and a wide killer smile that gives her the look of a Gallic Rene Russo, plays Maria, who likes her men young, available, and disposable, and in multiple varieties. She’s a Paris college professor who seduces her students with a cold, out-in-the-open utility that makes Mrs. Robinson look like a wallflower. We first meet Maria when she emerges from the dorm-room closet of the college dude she’s been shagging for three months, because she just can’t stand listening to his girlfriend (who’s in the room) prattle on anymore. Mastroianni rivets us by playing Maria as an unapologetically jaded sex addict. Given how few roles there are like that for women, we’re eager to experience her adventures.
But that’s not where “On a Magical Night” is going. Maria gets back to her apartment, where Richard (Benjamin Biolay), her husband of 25 years, discovers the student’s text messages on her cell phone (which he tosses into the washing machine). He raises the issue of their affair, and she reacts not defensively but (even worse) dismissively, as if her transgression were no more of a big deal than going off her diet. (To her, that’s just what it is: the stud-muffin as dessert pastry.) She makes the case for what we think of as the classic French attitude towards adultery: casual acceptance, a shrug of we all do it, driven by the cynical knowledge that no honest marriage can survive without it. But Richard, in his sad-sack way, is having none of that. He has never cheated, he says. To him this is a crisis, even if, to Maria, it’s barely a blip. So she goes over to the hotel across the street to rent a room for the night, leaving Richard to stew in his juices.
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Before long, she gets a visitor. It is Richard…at age 25 (played by Vincent Lacoste). It’s the Richard she first met, the one she fell in love with when they were both tender and innocent. This seems fairly psychodramatic in an interesting way, but Honoré, in “On a Magical Night,” is both a dramatist and a situational prankster. The idea of talking to your husband’s younger self is a resonant one, but it doesn’t take long before the movie ups the ante: Here, in hotel room #212 (hence the film’s original French title, “Chambre 212”), Maria will meet not just Richard’s younger self but the woman he nearly went off with instead of Maria. And she’ll re-commune with her own past lovers. Who Richard, after a while, will meet, too. Along with his old lover and his younger self. The film wants to be a meditation on love, but before long it starts to feel as overstuffed as a family reunion at Thanksgiving.
Richard’s old love story is a dicey one. It’s presented as a coupling of sweet rapture, but when Irène (Camille Cottin) first met him and (it’s implied) started sleeping with him, she was his piano teacher and he was 14. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a movie presenting that situation, since it can happen in the real world. But “On a Magical Night,” having already teased us with Maria’s propensity to seduce college kids half her age, treats Irène’s teenage cradle-robbing with a blasé smirk of French “worldliness.” The movie basically says: Stifle your knee-jerk morality — it’s no big deal. But even those of us who lean toward stifling our knee-jerk morality may think, “Really?” The idea that this is the basis for a romantic relationship whose purity is supposed to contrast with Richard’s marriage is a bit of a brain boggle.
“On a Magical Night” is whimsically cute, provocative in a coy way, and more than a little in love with itself. In fact, I kept seeing a shadow movie behind it — the story of a film director (like the Jean-Pierre Léaud character in “Last Tango in Paris”) making this very movie, sitting around cafés telling anyone within earshot, “It will be about memory! The ache of the possible! The lure of the impossible!” Yes, but too much of “On a Magical Night” plays like the Bertrand Blier of “Get Our Your Handkerchiefs” making a sitcom. At 90 minutes, the film feels endless, and we have too much time to notice that the two actors playing Richard seem like two totally different people, and that the film has holes in its fantasy logic you could drive a truck through. Honoré doesn’t contrast romantic possibilities — he juggles them, until you’re dying for him to put his arms down.