‘Sleepness Night’: French gangsters in a nightclub, moving fast
Sleepless Night, a hard-boiled Gallic action film, is similar to last year's Point Blank and 2006's Tell No One in that all three are French, all lean heavily on convoluted plot twists and reversals, and all favor frenzied action over considered choreography.
Kinetic, wild action is the thing in Sleepless Night, which recently played to a very receptive audience at the Tribeca Film Festival.
In theory, watching French hoods treat a night club as their own personal playground sounds great. They hide things in odd places, barge into places they shouldn't barge into, crawl under and around tables to avoid being recognized and knock stuff over.
But director Frederic Jardin's action scenes look careless. Scenes of our scruffy hero Vincent (Tomer Sisley) kicking over flutes of champagne or, earlier, blending into a crowd as they square dance to "Another One Bites the Dust," are superficially urgent because there's no eye for detail. These scenes rely on the impression of violence rather than a plausible representation of it.
There's nothing wrong with Sleepless Night's bare-bones set-up. Vincent is a crooked cop. He steals some cocaine. The former owner finds out and kidnaps Vincent's son. To get his son back, Vincent has to weather a series of double-crosses in a very spacious night club. Stubbornly straight cops, predictably crooked gangsters and generically weak and traitorous partners abound.
But the emotional heft of Sleepless Night is stunted by Jardin's use of close-ups and various camera rigs to convey Vincent's intensity. To show Vincent's panic upon first hearing that his son has been kidnapped, we get a leering closer-than-close-up of Vincent's eyes and nose. The rest of his face and surroundings are a blur; the piercing, seething look Pierre gives is meant to speak for itself. This is as cheap-looking as another essential scene in which Vincent treats his own wounds with alcohol while screaming like Tarzan. The camera lingers on Sisley as the veins on his neck bulge, leaving just enough negative space above his head that we almost imagine we can see action lines escaping his forehead.
The viewer is unceremoniously rushed by screenwriters Jardin and Olivier Douyere from one encounter to the next, as they pivot between clusters of characters without any apparent sense of direction.
Still, there's something about Sleepless Night, something that kept me watching in the vain hope that the film I was looking at would become the flinty and very French thriller I wanted it to be. I blame Sisley for this false hope. The semi-permanent scowl on his face is actually somewhat charming, even if that face is doused in so much sweat that you often forget what you're looking at. Sisley carries himself like an action hero.
Between him and the setting of the gangster-owned nightclub, the stage is always set for a big payoff. The anticipation of a burst of violence is heightened when Pierre pockets a switchblade that was inexplicably theretofore used to slice up limes. It seems as if something will happen at any moment, and even the smallest of pregnant pauses feels like it could be the start of something exciting, like when Pierre steels himself before running into a hidden room that he thinks his son might be detained in. Sleepless Night is so tense that it almost doesn't matter that Jardin never delivers the goods.
But he doesn't, and it's a problem. Sisley's natural wiles are wasted here, and Vincent just becomes a guy with a lot of blandly generic baggage. He gets hassled by unyielding cops, loses the drugs, bluffs his way around the nightclub some, realizes his son is his priority, makes out with a girl, beats up a dude in a bathroom stall, holds a gun to another guy's head and on and on. For a film whose action scenes are more busy than lively, that's deadly.