Days and Nights Dir. Christian Camargo

[IFC/Sundance Selects; 2014]

Styles: drama
Others: Arthousey stuff, Actors

Perhaps aware of their supreme uselessness in the grand scheme of things, actors are big on pseudo-intellectual bullshit. The mystique surrounding the profession is largely an exercise in dogged self-conviction — “if I bang on enough about my character’s motivation, perhaps someone will pay me as much as a rocket scientist or neurosurgeon.” The best actors evade this silliness and lead lives that would be interesting without the thesping (yer Nicholsons, yer Hoppers) or are inarticulate to the point of verbal inertia (step forward Mr. De Niro).

The worst, and there are plenty of them in Days and Nights, exhibit exasperating levels of self-absorption. It’s easy to imagine that all involved thought they were producing a work of rare poignancy and emotional depth, when it’s actually the single most insufferable film of 2014.

Adapted from Chekhov’s The Seagull, this is directed by an actor (Christian Camargo), features proper serious actors (William Hurt, Mark Rylance, and, er, Katie Holmes), and is about actors (fucking hell). While the prospect of Jean Reno (the same Jean Reno who fought Godzilla) trading passive-aggressive barbs with Alison Janney (the same Alison Janney who fought Godzilla) isn’t unappealing, what’s left is less a film than a recorded play with nice lighting.

The story follows Camargo’s film director character (how meta) as he joins his girlfriend (Janney) for a weekend at her brother’s house. The brother, played by Hurt, is dying, while her son (Ben Wishaw) is obsessed with a girl (Juliet Rylance) appearing in some daft mixed media production he’s thrown together. Because of drama, these characters all end up lusting or shouting after one another, but since the whole thing is readymade for the “highbrow drama” aisle in some legendarily posh video shop, we’re given no indication who they are, how they connect, or, why we should really care. It’s self-absorbed, see? The actors know the characters, so why worry about the punters? It’s not as if the proles know anything about art.

Well… if a single thought had gone out to the humble viewer, perhaps the film wouldn’t be so slapdash. The emphasis on acting, which is huge and overbearing, comes at the expense of consistent visual grammar. Publicity material alludes to an 80s setting, but aside from a few clips of Reagan droning on, these deeply irrelevant lakehouse melodramatics could have taken place at any time in the last ten years. Simply setting a film during a time of great social and cultural discord doesn’t confer meaning upon it — for that to happen, effort has to be made to draw parallels between the times. And apart from the notion that there will always be boring middle class cretins making everyone else’s lives miserable, there are no revelations to be gleaned from the period setting.

Camargo also fumbles a voiceover, drawing on another medium (the novel) at the expense of, y’know, the one he’s chosen to work in. After five minutes, it disappears, having offered no extra insight into a set-up that only those familiar with the play will understand. This is the worst kind of art, deriving all of its meaning from the cultural cache of other, older, works. There is nothing wrong with intellectualism in cinema, but here, pages and pages of Chekhov can’t paper over a fundamentally empty core.

For a film to be truly profound, it has to do more — it has to challenge the boundaries of its own medium. But Camargo clearly believed that all he needed to do was to sit some actors in a room and allow the magic of drama to happen. Everything else was left on the backburner. Coherent direction, writing — who needs them when you have a great bit of improv involving William Hurt and a funny wig? Urgh.

For all that it is so obviously the work of a conscientious liberal, Days and Nights is elitist in the vilest way, an attempt, thankfully failed, to recast cinema as the province of Drama graduates. And, as a result of that, it is already moldering testament to the self-absorption of a few very silly people.

Give up the day job, Chris. It’s made you a bore.

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