Tufts of fake snow float along a Paris street in Christophe Honoré’s On A Magical Night, reminding us that we are in that world of artifice where even problems sound like fantasies. Maria (Chiara Mastroianni) is a fortysomething law professor who regularly cheats on her husband, picking lovers based on their names. The latest and greatest conquest, at least in anthroponymic terms, is a college student who bears the unlikely name of Asdrubal Electorat. Her spouse, Richard (Benjamin Biolay, who is Mastroianni’s ex-husband in real life), is a sad romantic who claims to have never cheated on Maria, though he has always pined for a mystery woman named Irène Haffner.
After a quarter century together, these two have realized that they both might have married the wrong person. We’re meant to understand them as representing different kinds of infidelity, one purely lustful and the other purely emotional—though On A Magical Night isn’t interested in the question of which is worse. It has more mischievous ends in mind. Sneaking out of their apartment, Maria checks into the hotel across the street, picking out a room that lets her spy on her supposedly faithful husband as he gloomily putters around their home in a hoodie and wool socks. Then she falls asleep and wakes up to find the door open to the adjoining suite, where she discovers a younger Richard (Vincent Lacoste) in his early 20s, looking and acting exactly as he did when they first met.
This original-flavor Richard is only the first of many visitors. The next apparition is Irène Haffner (Camille Cottin), who turns out to have been Richard’s piano teacher, followed by Maria’s late mother, who has been keeping an exhaustive (and very disapproving) list of her lovers. Soon, she has summoned up an entire room of dolts with names like Karsten Schubert and Leonor Cambremer, plus some guy who backed out of a threesome but is just happy to have been invited to this particular gathering. Of course Maria has decided that the best thing to do is to send Irène across the street to her husband, who is no doubt pondering how his life might have turned out if he’d never married Maria or if they had children. It doesn’t take long for a toddler to materialize, too.
As was sometimes the case with his early movies, like Dans Paris and Love Songs, Honoré comes across as a filmmaker who treasures nothing more than being French—a pride in blasé attitudes and clouds of cigarette smoke that here includes riffs on everything from the New Wave’s affection for 1930s romantic comedies (complete with delightfully fake miniatures) to Charles Aznavour, who appears both on the soundtrack and via a second-rate impersonator who is one of Maria’s A Christmas Carol ghosts. The most prominent musical role, however, goes to Barry Manilow, whose “Could It Be Magic” gets a sincerely extended sequence.
It’s not hard to imagine what an American version of this would look like: lots of characters yelling and slamming doors, way too much time spent setting up the whole magic hotel thing. On A Magical Night is thankfully free of any internal logic. This allows Honoré to keep introducing new kinks into an already screwy premise—like the fact that the older Richard literally can’t recognize his younger self. The writer-director is working in storybook and movie-movie terms, playing whimsically with angles and stage-bound artifice, with overhead shots that track through different rooms of the set.
But despite its welcome breezy and surreal qualities, On A Magical Night (which was released in France under the more ambiguous title Chambre 212) has more psychological shortcuts than insights. Its twists are just a cuter way to transmit what’s little more than a conventionally insubstantial relationship drama in which Richard never really emerges as a personality; we don’t believe in these characters and conflicts any more than we believe that one’s former paramours could be conjured in a hotel suite. But at least it’s fun while it lasts.
Available in virtual theaters May 8.