Family life and the consequences of war collide in director Erik Poppe’s A Thousand Times Good Night – as war photographer Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) struggles to acclimatize to family life following a brush with death whilst photographing a suicide bomber’s mission in Kabul. Rebecca travels in to the city with the bomber before panicking and escaping the car, alerting the officials to what is happening. Throughout the film Rebecca blames herself for the deaths of those people who did not get away in time despite her warning. Her husband Marcus (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) resents her selflessness as she continuously places herself in harm’s way, putting him and their two daughters second to her career. The narrative follows Rebecca’s attempts to find the balance between being a loving mother and wife, and satisfying her obsession with a job which drives her to seek out the images that will make people “spit out their coffee”.
Lauryn Canny gives a promising performance as Steph, the couple’s eldest daughter, whom Rebecca takes to Kenya to take photographs of her own for a school project. When a group opens fire on the camp that the pair are visiting, Rebecca sends Steph away with their guide, whilst she continues to photograph the shooting as it happens. When Marcus finds out about this incident after they return to the family home in Ireland, it quashes any hope he might have had of salvaging his relationship with Rebecca. The complex nature of family relationships is the central theme of A Thousand Times Good Night, with much of the film focusing on how destructive Rebecca’s job has been on the mother- daughter dynamic between her and Steph. Poppe’s film makes some attempt to understand Rebecca’s psychology; some of its most visually interesting scenes staged through the intermingling of Rebecca’s dreams with reality. These scenes provide a slightly surreal aspect to the film, with Rebecca being shown plunging through dark water in each of her dreams, perhaps a metaphor for her struggle with the guilt that she feels for photographing the deaths of innocent people in Kabul during the suicide mission.
The film’s style is one of its strength; a beautifully shot opening sequence when Rebecca photographs the female suicide bomber creates a sense of urgency and intimacy between the character and the audience. By alternating between Rebecca’s point of view and that of the camera lens, the director draws the viewer in, duplicating the intensity at the heart of a war photographer’s job. Yet despite its impressive visual vocabulary, the film’s attempts to build tension are somewhat anticlimactic; little time is given over to the complexities surrounding war photography or the role of the photographer, and the body of the narrative dwells on the tensions that develop in her familial relations.
As always with films that use war zones as a backdrop, charges of exploitation and sensationalism are not far away, and Poppe can certainly be accused of using the two conflict areas in the film, Kabul and Kenya, as a means to an end. None of the history of the war in Kabul is explained at all; Rebecca simply turns up at the right place and right time to witness the suicide bomber preparing for her mission, and is allowed to return to the same place at the end of the film to photograph the same rituals, only this time with a child suicide bomber. Ignoring the wider political or ethical canvas is problematic in a film that is concerned with the seriousness of the war photographer’s job.
All in all, what appears to be a promising film about the perils of conflict photography turns out to be, in reality, nothing but a platform for a sentimental drama about a mother working out where her loyalties lie.