‘Sleepless Night (Nuit Blanche)’ – a lightning-fast, intelligent piece of filmmaking

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Sleepless Night (Nuit Blanche)

Directed by Frédéric Jardin

Written by Frédéric Jardin and Nicolas Saada and Olivier Douyère

France, 2011

Sometimes, a movie’s simplicity makes it effective. And whatever else can be said of Sleepless Night, or Nuit Blanche in its native France, it’s incredibly effective. Centered on an almost laughably basic concept—a French cop has to retrieve his son from a seemingly endless and seedy nightclub by returning some pilfered cocaine—this taut, relentless thriller from co-writer and director Frédéric Jardin is a must for any fan of the action genre. And if you get antsy at reading subtitles, forget it: Sleepless Night is breathless entertainment.

Tomer Sisley stars as Vincent, a crooked cop whose decision to, along with his partner, Manuel, steal ten kilos of cocaine from dealers working for a fearsome mobster opens the film. The theft goes awry, though: one of the dealers gets away after seeing Vincent’s face and immediately rats him out to his boss. The gangster responds by kidnapping Vincent’s son, Thomas, and holding him in his epically large nightclub until Vincent delivers what he stole. The task is deceptively simple, unfortunately; other, more powerful dealers, and two dogged cops from the so-called “Rat Squad” descend on the nightclub and make Vincent’s night longer and more painful.

The reductive description for Sleepless Night is that it’s Die Hard in a nightclub (with a dash of Taken), but by opening the film with Vincent in a moral gray area, Jardin throws off audience expectations instantly. When we initially watch Vincent struggle to simply hand over the cocaine to its owner, we’re empathetic to his plight because we’ve seen him interact with Thomas. We know, by this point, that Vincent is estranged from his wife and is a good enough father—at least, good enough for someone who’s a workaholic police officer with his fingers in various dirty pies. But Jardin holds out on the vital piece of information for the right amount of time: why exactly were Vincent and his partner stealing cocaine? What’s their hopeful endgame? In doing so, there’s that niggling idea in the back of our heads that there aren’t any good guys in Sleepless Night, merely various shades of evil.

Such moral ambiguity goes well with the nightclub’s generally hellish atmosphere. Once Vincent enters, about 10 minutes into the film, he barely gets off the premises for the next hour and a half. The labyrinthine club, and Vincent’s repeated unsuccessful attempts to get his son, smack strongly of some postmodern Kafkaesque horror story. And Sisley, who’s straight out of the strong-and-silent school of acting, does a solid job of getting across Vincent’s growing fury and desperation, as well as his single-minded drive to save his boy

What stands out most of all, however, is the action, which Jardin stages impressively from beginning to end, thanks in part to his cinematographer, Tom Stern, who’s best known for his frequent work with Clint Eastwood. Though there are innumerable battles, the best is a hand-to-hand fight between Vincent and Lacombe, the lead Rat Squad cop. It’d be unfair to compare Sleepless Night with a horror film like Halloween or Friday the 13th, but both men in this scene are akin to Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, Energizer-Bunny-like in their fervor to be the last man standing. The inventiveness of the choreography in the fight, set in the nightclub’s kitchen, along with the characters rarely acting stupid in their heat-of-the-moment choices, makes this a genuinely exhausting (in a good way) sequence.

In fact, most of what Jardin and fellow screenwriters Nicolas Saada and Olivier Douyère get right in Sleepless Night is never taking a breath. So many action movies these days, whether they’re American or from overseas, choose to parcel out big setpieces, punctuating those memorable moments with seen-there, heard-that dialogue and subplots between poorly constructed or weakly developed characters. Vincent may not be the most complex or three-dimensional of individuals, but the way the script shades him in subtly is striking. In addition, while we get a bit of strife between him and Thomas’ mother early on, the father-son relationship is more relatable despite being doled out very economically.

Relationships and cool-down dialogue aside, Sleepless Night is a lightning-fast, intelligent piece of filmmaking. The escalation of the action, the way the script zigs and zags in unpredictable directions, and Sisley’s grounded performance all make this a solid contender for the best action movie of the year. Perhaps more concerning to Hollywood is the idea that filmmakers from other countries may be threatening the monopoly mainstream studios have had on action movies for decades. One hopes that some bigwig will watch Sleepless Night, and finish with their jaw agape before they then shout out, angrily, “Why didn’t we think of making a movie like this?”

– Josh Spiegel

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