Inhabiting the Inbetween: Isabelle Boni-Clavérie’s Pour la nuit

The 2005 short film Pour la nuit, directed by Isabelle Boni-Clavérie, presents a personal exploration of the mixed family.  The film is set overnight in Marseilles, a symbolically and literally transnational space (as both passage to Africa and multicultural French city).  The director Karim Dridi set his film Bye bye (1995) in Marseilles because: ‘Setting my film over there allowed me… to look at Africa from the other side.  Just as I am half Arab and half French, so Marseilles is a city at an intersection, a very hybrid city’ (1995 cited in Higbee, 2001: 56).  As Will Higbee notes, Marseilles is a ‘miscegenated, multicultural space… an espace métise’ (2001: 56).  It is the locus of many interethnic interactions in French cinema.

In Pour la nuit, Muriel (played by mixed actress Isabelle Fruleux) is grieving for her (black) mother.  It is shot in black and white, an aesthetic choice which emphasises both its subject matter and her plurality.  The shadows the night light casts on the city – and on Muriel’s body in close-ups – expressionistically reveal an obfuscated physical and emotional landscape.  The geopolitical histories of its locus fix its seascapes in the sublime rather than romantic; static shots become apertures to violence and freedom, access and exclusion.  The film is also thematically hybrid and mixes melodramatic and road movie generic conventions.

It is possible to read Muriel’s characterisation as based in the American ‘tragic mulatta’ stereotype; she exploits her sexual power, appears torn between ideas and cannot control her passions.  She reflects traditional representations of divided loyalties and as such recalls mixed screen siren Nina Mae McKinney’s cry ‘half of me wants to be good’ – from King Vidor’s 1929 melodrama Hallelujah.  Muriel fights with her grieving (white) father and goes to her mother’s funeral with him the following day.  She flees the city for the sea.  She has casual sex by the coast on the eve of her partner’s wedding day.  She remains between polarities, neither one nor the other but both and more than.

Her sexual behaviour could be read as legitimising mixed-race stereotypes based on instability, hypersexuality, wildness and a preference for white men.  But unlike the ‘tragic mulattoes’ of American films, she is not searching for a new identity achieved through ‘passing’ for white, she chooses the hybrid liminality of the shadows instead.  Thus Boni-Clavérie does not end the film with the punitive resolution so common to mixed American films, nor with the containment of the mixed female in the white, heteronormative unit, she leaves it open for Muriel to find her own way forward.

The fluidity of the film recalls Philippe Faucon’s Muriel fait le désespoir de ses parents (1995), where a teen leaves the provinces for the banlieue, to fall for both a white woman and black man.  Here duality is expressed through métissage, unbounded love and bisexuality.  Along with Pour la nuit, it marked a contrast to dominant French film culture for its sensitive treatment of black sexual and (trans)gender identities (see Provencher, 2007).  Although Pour la nuit’s Muriel is less adventurous, her sexuality is a key element of her identity and adds to her character (unlike many mixed/black characters whose sexuality, whether denied or overrepresented, was so often one-dimensional). 

Pour la nuit was written and directed by a French-Ivorian female director, and so refutes the mono-racial perspective of most mixed-race representations.  This pluriversality is evident in the mixed narrative form, its evasion of dominant themes and established positions, its refusal to resort to simple conclusions.  The filmmaker offers no moral judgement or resolution, thus allowing Muriel to enjoy her ‘multiple horizons’ (see Taylor, 1989), and the spectator to be an active witness. 

Pour la nuit can be read as a political film in terms of its representations of race and gender.  It is a feminist film in terms of its narrative and visual choices.  The film explores the ideas of beginnings and endings, of identity and fulfillment, of lust and love.  It is philosophical and poetic, using minimal dialogue and visually focusing on the in-between shades of grey which categorise Muriel’s interstitial existence.  She is positioned as a mixed nomad (see Deleuze and Guattari, 1986, Braidotti, 1994), moving from one culture to another, from one emotional state to another, from one reality to another yet, as John Locke put it, ‘the same thinking thing in different times and places’ (1975: 2.27.9).  Like the mixed-race Marseilles-based protagonists of contemporaneous films such as Bye bye, Samia (Faucon, 2000), Boys on the Beach (Bensalah, 1999), La Graine et le mulet (Kechiche, 2007) or Drôle de Félix (Ducastel and Martineau, 2000), she is drawn to the coast as an in-between space which, as Dridi noted, allows us to resist limiting ideologies and embrace polycentric, interconnected perspectives rooted in ancestral futurisms.

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