Perhaps On a Magical Night, the new film from writer/director Christophe Honoré, begins on the wrong note to help us to sympathize with its beleaguered protagonist. The opening scene suggests this quite strongly. In it, Maria (Chiara Mastroianni), a college professor living in Paris, is right in the middle of a regularly scheduled sexual liaison with one of her students. He is taking too long to get rid of his girlfriend, though, and impatiently, she bursts from her hiding spot and decides to end the affair with the boy – in front of his current romantic entanglement, no less. Upon returning to her apartment, where husband Richard (Benjamin Biolay) must barely push to get the truth out of her, Maria essentially brags about the fling that acts as a necessary distraction.

Indeed, according to her, an affair is an expected feature, not a bug, of an extended period of marriage. Richard disagrees. Never, in their twenty years of matrimony, has he been unfaithful, so one can imagine that such a perspective falls on baffled ears. It is quite baffling to us, as well, and no matter what events occur, decisions are made, and conclusions are drawn during the extended act of magical realism that follows, Honoré never quite seems to know what he wants us to think about Maria. The filmmaker certainly does not want us to think anything specific about Richard, whose own perspective is all but entirely ignored through the events of the plot, in favor of a treatment that defines him exclusively by his relationship to Maria.

This is despite a fine performance from Biolay as a nebbish and hapless man unable or unwilling to act in defense of his insecurities until it is far too late. Upon the clear wedge that forms between them, Maria leaves, taking a hotel room just across the street with a perfect view into his bedroom. Meanwhile, she proceeds to reunite with a younger man (Vincent Lacoste), whose real identity is kept secret until a certain point in the story, and to reignite a passionate affair with him. All the while, Richard mopes around their apartment from afar – until, that is, the intrusion of a mysterious woman named Irène (Camille Cottin), whom Maria’s suitor claims was once his “good friend.” She was, in truth, his music teacher from a young age, leading to an equally torrid, morally irresponsible affair.

The film then becomes something of a ribald, fantasy-driven sex comedy, as Maria is visited by the ghosts of her past sex life in an especially lewd take on Charles Dickens. It isn’t exactly difficult to determine what is really going on here, especially because Honoré employs a lot of fantastical flourishes – fancy blocking to reveal something impossible in a previously empty space, the “ashes” of a relationship falling upon the aftermath of an argument, and so forth – to let us know that much of this is likely occurring within Maria’s state of mind. The humor here is low-key and based in subtle dialogue exchanges, as one might expect from a French comedy, and the sincerity of the proceedings is never in question, especially as the final act has Maria confronting her demons in a roundabout way.

Still, this is hardly an egalitarian examination of this marriage, especially as it crescendos toward that third act, which seeks to tidy up the decades-long logjam of problems between Maria and Richard. We know it cannot be that easy, but Honoré bizarrely tries to have it both ways in this time-hopping climax, in which characters from the past and present interact with each other. It is a clever set-up, but the pay-off falls short in many ways. Primarily, nothing insightful is revealed to us about the dynamic of this relationship through these flights of fancy. Mastroianni is quite good here, imbuing Maria with more humanity than what rests on the page. The rest of On a Magical Night is somehow too complicated and too inconsequential to come together satisfactorily.

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