The Night Eats The World (La nuit a dévoré le monde)
France (2018) Dir. Dominique Rocher
Do you want to know what I consider a true horror film? One which is made in France by a French director and crew but all the dialogue is in English and there are no HOH subtitles on the DVD! A nightmare experience if there ever was one! But I digress…
Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) drops in on his ex-girlfriend Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz) to collect some old music cassettes he left behind but she is having a party and is too busy to attend to him. Going off alone Sam bumps into a clumsy partygoer and suffers a nosebleed. Locking himself away in his old bedroom Sam drifts off to sleep.
The next morning Sam awakens and leaves the bedroom to find the flat empty except for signs of utter carnage, including bloodstains everywhere. He barely makes out the front door before being set upon by a couple of women who are now zombies, and out on the streets below Sam witnesses more walking dead claiming new victims. Now alone, Sam must work out how to survive inside the apartment block.
No doubt visions of a cross between I Am Legend and 28 Days Later are forming in your mind and this is somewhat valid, but imagine those two films with less action, less drama and fewer shocks and you have this debut from Dominique Rocher. It’s based on a novel of the same name by Pit Agarmen but one has to assume the story works better being told through the written word.
Having not read the novel I can’t say if the story couldn’t translate to the screen or whether it is a case of what Rocher chose to adapt for his telling of it. This is a very different zombie movie in that the usual fight for survival drama is largely eschewed and heart shopping violent encounters with the undead are scant here.
The focus instead is on Sam’s struggle to stay sane without any human companionship; he does have someone to talk to in Alfred (Denis Lavant) but he is a zombie trapped in a broken lift. Unable to communicate or understand what is happening around him, Alfred becomes Sam’s sounding board, albeit not a particularly helpful one when it comes to offering idea or replies to his woes.
In passing the time, Sam breaks in to other flats that he knows are empty to stock up on food and other necessities, grows plants, and makes “music” play playing along with his old backing tracks and tapping along on anything that happens to be to hand. It makes for a fun montage at first but repeated throughout and becoming increasingly dour with each passing appearance and Sam’s ennui becomes ours as well.
Arthouse fans more in tune with such glacial pacing in their films will presumably find this display of static development endearing as a realistic depiction of a man coping with enforced isolation. There is merit to this and it does make a refreshing, if bold change from the usual testosterone fuelled heroics the genre normally demands, but it backfires in becoming the quotidian for Sam and a slog for the audience.
But this allows for the story’s true theme to be examined – whether Sam is staying alive out of futility when everyone else is now a zombie or if he should hold on to the hope that there is a way out and somewhere in Paris that isn’t overrun by the undead. He tells Alfred that being dead is now “the norm” and him being human makes him abnormal, an irony he laughs at, yet inside it fills him with dread.
Earlier I mentioned Sam has no human companion to endure this mundane existence with but that isn’t strictly true – another survivor Sarah (Golshifteh Farahani) manages to enter the building. Her arrival is memorable but that is all I can say about her without spoiling anything, but her role does serve a purpose to illustrate the immense pressure Sam’s paranoia and instinct to survive puts on him.
Zombie films rarely, if ever, take the time to look beyond the gore and horror and adopt an existential approach to the consequences of this catastrophe. This will be the main appeal for many whilst those looking for good old-fashioned splatter action will be sorely disappointed at the paucity of actual scares, as fun and dramatic as the few brief scenes are.
The film is very well made and Rocher has clearly studied enough zombie films to ensure the scenes of terror and danger honour the traditions of the genre in making our hearts leap up into our throats. The gore is infrequent but the make-up and effects are top notch, whilst the zombies themselves might be gormless but not slow or lumbering, capable of outrunning their prey with ease.
Rocher shows a lot of confidence in his debut, along with a keen eye for shot composition and aesthetic, with some of the scenes of Sam trying to amusing himself likely to draw comparisons to sci-fi films featuring lone survivors like Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Martian. What stands out more is his obvious arthouse leanings and I am sure his next film will be more along those lines.
Aside from the partygoers, zombies, their victims, Sarah and Alfred, this is effectively a one-man show for Anders Danielsen Lie as Sam. Interestingly he becomes less hirsute as time rolls on which might reflect his boredom or his decaying state of mind. Lie uses these physical changes to relay the debilitating effects of Sam’s emotional journey, and by carrying the bulk of the film, he is able to parlay this into a nuanced performance.
Sadly, this won’t be enough to hold everyone’s attention or compensate for the lack of action, thus opinion will be divided on whether The Night Eats The World is a genius subversion of an overcrowded genre or a plodding timewaster. Nice idea though.