Films We’ve Watched: Sleepless Night (Nuit Blanche) (2011)

15 Nov

Note: This was originally written as the program notes for this film when it was shown by the Austin Film Society at the Alamo Drafthouse on October 2.  It can also be read on their website:  I also reviewed this film previously when I saw it at Fantastic Fest last year, that review is here:

“I wanted to have a fight that would be interesting for people who don’t like fights in films.  Not just for crazy people who like kung-fu movies.” – Frederic Jardin

I would consider myself something of an action film connoisseur.  That is not to say that I don’t enjoy other genres as well.  My list of favorite movies includes every conceivable variety.  But if you really look at my roots, if you go back to the movies I grew up watching with my father, you’re going to find a whole lot of action movies.

The first R-rated film I ever saw was Predator.  I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I watched it.  But it was probably younger than my mother would have liked.  That movie defined my taste in cinema for years to come.  It led me to Die Hard, Escape From New York, Blood Sport, and so very many more.  And while I would never argue that these films are the pinnacle of artistic endeavor, when I am home alone there’s a good chance I will choose to watch a movie starring Dolph Lundgren.

Sleepless Night is a movie from a director who has only done comedy up till this point.  It stars the most successful stand-up comedian to ever come out of France.  But it’s also been hailed as one of the best action films of the last several years.

Here’s the rundown:  Vincent (Tomer Sisley) is a cop (possibly undercover, possibly corrupt) who participates in the robbery of two drug couriers.  Unfortunately, he is recognized during the commotion.  This results in his neglected son’s abduction. The boy is held for ransom until Vincent returns the drugs.  Throw in some other cops that are hot on Vincent’s trail, and a sprawling nightclub in which almost the entire film takes place, and you’ve got an intense setup that immediately sucks the audience in.

In fact, you have the basis of almost every great action film.  If you go through the pantheon of truly great action films you will find that the hero is typically fighting for someone that he cares about.  This can be trying to save someone, as in Sleepless Night, or trying to avenge someone, as we see in Rocky IV.  Having the hero of the story fighting for someone they love gives the audience exactly the kind of motivation they need to root for him.  If Vincent was just running around a gangland nightclub fighting and killing people because he wanted to, no one would care what happened to him.  There has to be a humanizing reason pushing the protagonist.  That is what can make or break an action movie.  No one sits down to watch an action flick because they think the events can really happen.  But in exchange for the proper motivation, you will not only root for the hero, you’ll also suspend your disbelief for two hours .

In Sleepless Night, we have an example of a fantastic plot coupled with great filmmaking.  Having most of the plot take place in the same packed nightclub allows the director Frederic Jardin to do several things that continually ratchet up the adrenaline.  For example, this is one of the most claustrophobic films I’ve ever seen.  And this is not due to anyone being buried alive or something like that.  Jardin simply takes advantage of the surroundings that are in a nightclub.  Small bathrooms, large crowds, packed staircases, everything works together to make it harder to move, and harder to relax.

The setting also allowed the filmmakers to put together some fight sequences that will excite the viewer, but in ways that are surprising.  No one kicks in a door and sprays the room with a fully automatic shotgun (a la The Expendables).  Instead, we have a tightly choreographed fight sequence between two desperate men in a restaurant kitchen.  Referencing the fight Jardin said, “The main idea was that we wanted a very long fight and usually in the film it’s short.  I wanted them to fight until they were exhausted.  Like two dogs.  I wanted the audience to almost smile at it.  As it goes on again and again.”

His method works because Jardin has a leading man who does his own stunts and managed to choreograph the kitchen fight himself.  When asked why he insisted on always doing his own stunts, Sisley responded that it makes a better film.  “Because I think that it is always better for the movie because it allows him to put the camera wherever he wants.  Not having to shoot from behind so that nobody sees that it’s not me.  Or having to cut me.  I think that it makes his job easier and it’s better.  Absolutely.”  That kind of dedication is not something that you find in every action star.  And it translates perfectly to the screen.  You see every detail of Vincent’s desperation on his face while he’s fighting because it actually is Vincent.  It’s not his stunt man shown from across the room.  It’s a close up on the character’s face as he struggles to stand up and keep going.

Sleepless Night is the rare action film that transcends its genre and stands up on its own two legs in the world of modern cinema.  I will continue to watch Jean-Claude Van Damme movies at my house, late at night, probably alone.  But I will show Sleepless Night to any stuck up, film school graduated cinephile and not worry about their reactions for a minute.

– david



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