It’s May 10, 1981, and Paris is celebrating. French political junkies might know the cause for this revelry, but for the rest of us, the reason seems to matter less than the electric atmosphere enveloping the streets as people dance to the sound of honking car horns. Grainy, scene-setting archival footage is interspersed with the main action here and elsewhere in Mikhaël Hers’ period piece, which stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as a single mother looking to rediscover herself after being left by her husband. An airy, low-key drama that doesn’t suffer for its lack of narrative tension, “The Passengers of the Night” further proves the old adage about the journey mattering more the destination.
We first meet Élisabet (Gainsbourg) at her lowest: unemployed, recently single and responsible for two teenagers (Quito Rayon-Richter and Megan Northam) whose father has walked out on the family. That may sound like the setup for something dire, but “The Passengers of the Night” lands closer to the opposite end of the spectrum — gently uplifting without being schmaltzy, and moving without resorting to sentimentality. That’s even true when the narrative shifts to Talulah (Noée Abita), a wayward youth whom Élisabet brings out of the cold and into the warmth of her home.
The drama, such as it is, ultimately seems to pass Élisabet by. One of the first things we learn about her is that she’s strapped for cash and, having spent the preceding years raising her children, doesn’t have much of a résumé to speak of. Her financial woes are taken care of almost immediately when she lands a gig at the late-night radio show for which “Passengers” is named. Despite immediately being told that the pay is “terrible,” she and her brood continue living comfortably in their gorgeous flat despite her ex not paying any kind of spousal support — the main instance of Hers establishing a potential stumbling block before quickly knocking it over.
Élisabet also finds herself in a loving, supportive relationship without much difficulty, an act of narrative closure that’s a bit easier to believe. Rather than a detriment, this narrative breeziness is part of the film’s charm: “The Passengers of the Night” floats from one happening to the next without much actual conflict, ultimately landing somewhere between a character study and a mood piece. It really is all about vibes, from an era-appropriate soundtrack and a brief scene of Jacques Rivette’s “Le Pont du Nord” playing to the click-clack of the switchboard at Élisabet’s behind-the-scenes job at the radio station.
The exception would be the younger generation, namely Talulah. An indomitable performer, Gainsbourg commands every film she’s in, but relative newcomer Abita (who played the title role in Cannes 2017 offering “Ava”) matches her energy and then some in a performance that brings to mind Mena Suvari in “American Beauty.” A runaway and high-school dropout, she also has a substance-abuse problem that brings the film closer to narrative thorniness than any other plot contrivance — but would you believe me if I told you that this, too, is ultimately just a second-act hiccup? Hers has no intention of putting his characters through the wringer or truly testing their mettle, instead offering a slice of life that, despite taking place first in 1984 and then in ’88, has the feel of a single moment in their lives. Fortunate, then, that they’re pleasant to be around.
The same can be said of “Passengers of the Night” itself, whose low-key charms are almost akin to a hangout movie. We don’t need to know how things will turn out for these people five, 10 or even 20 years hence to enjoy spending time with them, just as we don’t need high narrative stakes to care about them in the first place. Such an approach might not have succeeded without a talent like Gainsbourg in the lead, but she makes it work just as she always seems to.