Ce que le jour doit à la nuit

Ce que le jour doit à la nuit

November 28, 2020 0 By Anton

It was something special to watch a movie such as “What the day owes the night” at a time when I also discovered the magnificent and surreal work of Hal Hartley and Wim Wenders – the combination was an intoxicating atmosphere of all good things we humans have to offer: imperfect love, addictive melancholy, captivating storytelling, harmony and beauty, sacrifice, redeemable tragedy and, of course, good music.

“What the day owes the night”, screened by French director Alexandre Arcady, is based on a story written by Algerian author, Yasmina Khadra. The movie was recommended to me by a good friend with whom I reconnected recently after 15 years, by chance.

At first, I saw the movie was about 3 hours long and I said to myself: “Ah, one of these movies”. You know, the kind that is too long and too heavy? After I finished watching it however, I wished the movie was three times longer.

A disclaimer: if you haven’t watched the movie or read the book and you want to do so, please be advised that the review will contain spoilers.

The review

The story unfolds in the French-occupied Algeria and follows the life of Younes (played by Fu’ad Aït Aattou) from his childhood in the 1930s to modern day.

The opening scene starts abruptly in time, in a moment that is forever lost, stuck between what it was and what it will never be, even though time continues to flow. 

“Today, my future is behind me. Just the past lies ahead” states an old aged Younes while the camera displays him much younger but as lost in thought as his elder self.

Younes was born in a poor, rural Algerian family who was living off the land. In the first few minutes, we see a golden field of grains being worked by his father, who looks as if hard work never bothered him. In fact, he seems fulfilled with the physically challenging lifestyle and with what I assume to be a profound connection to the land.

However, Younes’s family is forced to move to the port of Oran, the nearest city, after a blackmail attempt for debt money turns into tragedy as their crops are set on fire and their livelihood destroyed. After a lot of struggle and internal conflict, his father realises that he is unable to care for both him and his younger sister and puts Younes in the care of his uncle, Mohamed, a pharmacists who was married to a piano teacher named Madeleine – a French Catholic woman who eventually renamed Younes to Jonas.

This name change is significative as it symbolises rebirth. In particular, it is represents Younes’s new life in a different socio-economic class as Mohamed and Madeleine are much wealthier than his parents.

Probably the most moving aspect of the heart-breaking scenes of a father having to give up his son for a better life is the silence of God, who remains unmoved by the father’s prayers. Indeed, the movie touches on a number of important themes and spirituality is just one of them. The tragedy of life eventually leaves Jonas only with its adoptive family only, as his mother and sister are killed during the battle of Mers El-Kebir (I believe), while his natural father descends into alcoholism and madness.

The theme of spirituality comes up multiple times during the film and it is particularly notable in the relationship between Mohamed (a Muslim) and Madeleine (a Catholic) who have loved each other and been married for years, facing various hardships due to their courage to break the orthodoxy of “stick to your group” mentality that has been so pervasive throughout human history.

How deep the animosities between the French and the Algerians were rooted become even more evident when young Jonas returned one day from school complaining to his uncle that his French classmates thought that Arabs were lazy. To this his uncle answers something along the lines: “They are correct, but they don’t like this because we make time for ourselves”.

It is in Oran, in the house of Mohamed and Madeline that Jonas meets Emilie, a French girl who came to live in Algeria with her parents. They become friends after a few exchanges of timid interactions. Emilie and Jonas, as it turns out later in the movie, are soulmates that are not meant to be.

After an intercalation with the French authorities they are forced to flee Oran, leaving everything and everyone behind. They move to El Salado (now known as El Malah) where Mohamed opens up a new pharmacy and Jonas begins a new life – new school, new friends and follows in the footsteps of his uncle of becoming a pharmacist as well.

It is in this new world that fate intervenes in Jonas’s life. The now grown up, young and attractive Jonas one morning, while working in the pharmacy, meets a French lady who looks for her ointment, which wasn’t ready that day. Instant chemistry between the two. She invites Jonas to bring the ointment to her villa, a white stone castle on a hill next to the Jewish cemetery.

Large green gardens decorated with an explosion of colourful flowers – white, red, pink and orange – ivory walls and a warm sun. Everything is too beautiful not to make love, which is exactly what they do. But who can blame them? When you are surrounded by beauty what is there left to do but to make love? However, as it turns out, this was a great mistake that leads to one of the biggest tragedies of Jonas’s life – to love someone and not be able to either show that love or be with that person. This is worse than unrequited love, where one person doesn’t feel the same: here both feel the same way, but that love cannot be manifested. As a result, the universe itself is forever incomplete.

Jonas eventually reunites with Emilie during a local celebration. They are both young adults now. However, it was Emilie’s mother with whom the young Arab slept and who makes him swear that he will never tell Emilie about it nor that he will be with her. Numerous times Emilie attempts to attract Jonas’s attention, but he continues to keep his oath. She dates some of his friends, cries to him, asks uncomfortable questions, demands answers and even ends up marrying one of Jonas’s closest friends – all desperate attempts to make Jonas come back to her.

The deterioration of their relationship that, even though it never started it is so strong that you feel the world around them warping, happens in parallel with the transformation of Algeria, from a French-ruled country to an independent one. There is an implied sacrifice here – but for what?

There are other themes besides forbidden love and religious conflicts that highlight the personal nature of faith. Friendship, the beauty of a simple life, belonging to a place, war, loss and morality (doing what’s right) are some of them.

A personally memorable scene that articulates the deeper nuances of the story is when Jonas sits next to the father of one of his friends, a rich Frenchman who invested in the local infrastructure and tells Jonas that there was nothing before they came there and that “this country owes us everything”. He stresses that if the French leave, Algeria will return to be a forsaken place without grains and vines, just rock.  

Below them, in an arid valley, under a tree, a lone farmer plays the flute. Looking at that simple man, so content with his life and so in tune with the arid environment, Jonas replies: “these rocks don’t belong to you […]. Before your grandfather came here, these belong to a man until you brought the issues here. […] These lands belong to that man”. With his eyes, he points to the poor farmer sitting in the sun with his flute.

That may be a point on colonialism, but it is broader than that – there is no people on this Earth who hasn’t pillaged, conquered and destroyed other people’s way of life. It is a point that cuts deep to a problem partly articulated by Machiavelli, that not all ultimate values are compatible and therefore, not all ways of life are compatible but that doesn’t mean that any of them are inferior or superior to others. Individuals should be left alone, to belong where they feel that they belong. Our actions have consequences across time. There is no innocent person in this regard and there will never be one.

The aesthetics of the film are impeccable. Architecturally, the story unfolds among a beautiful combination of buildings from the Roman Empire and the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, French influences and Berber houses. The perpetual summer feeling adds an element of melancholy that the sunlight shouldn’t be able to bring – this belongs to the night. And yet, melancholy is a continuous emotion throughout the film.

Everything is brought together by the music which is, as in all pieces of cinematic art, the true soul of the story. Probably the most well known song, with which “What the day owes the night”ends is A Vava Inouva by Idir.

To me, the movie shows that there are only two eternal aspects of human life: love and death. Everything in between these two elements, in themselves vague and alchemical, changes, decays and disappears. The default position of all huma life is to suffer until the inevitable death. Love remedies this. It is the drug that heals. However, love is not inevitable. It requires a lot of searching, primarily within, and a bit of chance. It requires taking risks and making an effort. But once found, love has no requirements. If we lose love then we will only have death. From this perspective, the purpose of human life is to find and preserve love.