Alex Lutz directs and stars in this Un Certain Regard closer about the chance meeting of a Parisian couple

Strangers By Night

Source: Cannes International Film Festival

‘Strangers By Night’

Dir: Alex Lutz. France, Belgium. 2023. 91mins

A chance encounter on the Paris Metro leads to a heated argument between Aymeric (Alex Lutz) and Nathalie (Karin Viard). But it also unleashes a reckless passion that sees them coupling impulsively in the station photo booth shortly afterwards. On a whim, they spend the night together, roaming the streets, weeping, dancing and engaging a wide-ranging chat that covers, among other things, love, marriage and the nature of physical chemistry. As the night wears on, they postpone the moment of parting, eking out their stolen time together for as long as they can. This romantic drama by Alex Lutz applies itself industriously to the task of manufacturing a spontaneous spark between the two central characters, but finds itself rather swamped in over-written dialogue. A final reveal adds retrospective interest, but this picture makes heavy weather of what should be an airily impetuous connection.

Sophisticated, sexy, extremely talky and archetypically French

This fourth outing for Lutz – best known as an actor and winner of the Best Actor Cesar for 2019’s Guy which, like here, he also co-wrote and directed – is sophisticated, sexy, extremely talky and archetypically French. As such, it will likely be most warmly received domestically, where its stars, Viard and Lutz, will have the advantage of name recognition. Elsewhere, it could connect with an older, middlebrow arthouse audience, possibly through a streaming platform. 

The initial encounter is pretty much the opposite of a meet-cute. Aymeric and Nathalie are insufferable, their public slanging match is cringingly embarrassing. Rather generously, the film shows fellow passengers in the train smirking with amusement, whereas in reality there would more likely be a stampede to change to another carriage in order to escape them. But once the film hits its stride, and the always-handsome streets of Paris are showcased to suitably romantic effect, we warm to the couple. 

With the fighting and subsequent fornicating out of the way, the pair pack a lot into their night together. They gatecrash a Gen Z party, where apparently nobody notices that they are a good three decades older than the other guests. They do a runner from a Chinese restaurant. They stroll through the boulevards and woodlands, to the accompaniment of overwrought, tinkling piano and, on a whim, decide to visit a sex club. It’s here, during a conversation with a couple of sweetly non-threatening swingers, that we get a hint that there may be more than random chance behind the encounter between Aymeric and Nathalie. Another significant, possibly symbolic moment occurs when the pair catch a runaway circus horse and return it to where the performers sit in a peaceful vigil for a dying pony.

It’s not badly acted necessarily, but it is conspicuously acted, with the kind of showy dialogue-parrying that feels less like a free-wheeling, free-flowing conversation – the approach employed by Richard Linklater’s similarly-theme Before series – and more like a piece of rigorously-rehearsed theatre. The final twist, which employs a flashback showing us crucial background detail and a new perspective on the initial meeting, works reasonably well. It brings a new depth to the story and persuades us that the slightly over-wrought emotional pitch of the story might be justified, after all. Even so, it comes as something of a relief to bid Aymeric and Nathalie a final adieu.

Production company: Maneki Films 

International sales: Studiocanal

Producer: Didar Domehri

Screenplay: Alex Lutz, with Karin Viard, Hadrien Bichet, 

Cinematography: Eponine Momenceau 

Editing: Monica Coleman 

Production design: Aurélien Maille 

Music: Vincent Blanchard

Main cast: Alex Lutz, Karin Viard, Jérôme Pouly, Noémie De Lattre, Kenza Fortas, Nicole Calfan