It isn’t hard to find stories about life’s little curveballs leading one from tragedy to triumph. This idea of finding ourselves while caught in an unforeseen predicament in an unexpected place has been the leitmotif of countless narratives over the years. The Sunlit Night, directed by German filmmaker David Wnendt, crafts such a tale with a strange sense of quiet tranquility blended with underlying dismay without being cloying to its subject matter.
Based on the popular novel of the same name, The Sunlit Night weaves the tale of a struggling painter named Francis, played by Jenny Slate, whose life is in flux. After a scathing review of her latest series of paintings, finding out her parents are separating, being forced to move into a small studio workspace with her father, and her sister’s recent engagement, Francis decides to take a job as an assistant to temperamental artist Nils in far off country of Norway where she will assist in painting an old barn as an art installation. Hoping for a fresh start and inspiration, she soon realizes the path she takes was not as expected, yet becomes exactly what she needed.
Art Is Subjective
Not having read the novel the film is based on, I knew little about the plot going in other than author Rebecca Dinerstein, who wrote the book, penned the screenplay. Several moments throughout, the film felt very reminiscent of similar stories of female empowerment after life-changing occurrences where the stakes are not world-ending but rather life-affirming. Examples of the likes of Eat. Pray. Love. and Under A Tuscan Sun have similar energy and purpose where the audience can relate to some of the more lighthearted speed bumps one might run into only to find their answer by changing their locale, job, or paradigm and keeping the journey on the more upbeat side.
The direction taken by both filmmakers and actors does well to keep the story light yet intriguing enough to feel important. The cast is pitch-perfect in their portrayals, both with the tensity of their characters and managing to keep the mood playful. One of the more interesting instances of excellent acting choices comes from Jessica Hecht and the amazing David Paymer playing the roles of Francis’ parents, a couple on the outs, who bring a bittersweet nonchalance to their dire straights. What could have been done with cliched vitriol, comes across as deflecting from the sorrow they face. Jenny Slate, herself, brings a quiet pain which inevitably becomes more vocal once she becomes more comfortable in her foreign environment and opens up to her new acquaintances. Her fluctuation between depression and moments of enlightenment comes with her innate ability to help elevate Francis as a character without ever outwardly saying a much.
The male counterparts in the film are an interesting counterbalance to Francis, individually bringing their own issues to the table without overshadowing the lead. Nils, played with stoic narcissism by Norwegian actor Fridtjov Såheim, keeps the role close to the chest, rarely allowing the audience to form an opinion about the character though keeping him intriguing. Zack Galifianakis brings his usual awkward know-it-all bravado in one of the sillier parts as a native Ohioan who runs a Viking historical reenactment group. But the strange standout comes from Alex Sharp as Yasha, an introverted baker’s son who has traveled to Norway to give his beloved father the Viking funeral he requested in his final days. Sharp does well at being the one character who is facing a physical loss rather than an existential crisis and seemingly being the most broken in the film. Insert a quick cameo from Gillian Anderson to round out the cast and you have the makings of something interesting.
Color Is Key
An intriguing element to the film is the sense of coldness against color. Besides the occasional green countryside, once Francis gets to Norway, color takes a backseat to the cold, yet never dark, sky. Francis dresses in stark white overalls with a beamingly bright red hooded sweatshirt, painting a metaphorical bullseye on the main character in this bleak world she has encountered. Nils, Yasha, and even Galfinakis dress in drab clothing throughout, putting the spotlight further on Francis. Enter the color scheme of the old barn Nils has chosen for his latest work. Bright yellows and warm oranges, which seemingly grow brighter along with everyone else as the film unfolds revealing the pain, loss, or uncertainty faced throughout culminating in a third act catharsis felt by all.
Even Francis’ personal work as an artist grows deeper with her use of one color per painting, although she is painting the same subject every time. What starts off as an unfeeling, dank environment, begins to shine and evolve towards the climax.
The Sunlit Night is in no means a perfect film. It is slow and meandering at parts and could be seen as predictable in its pretensions. Although there is a beauty to its purpose. The relatability comes from the myriad of issues faced by all throughout, but yes, there will definitely be outlying factors that may not gel with everyone’s taste. For some, this may come off as an easily wrapped up indie with little stakes. For others, they might find solace in the quiet, slow burn, of it all. Either way, the heart of the matter is addressed and finalized with a semi-sweet conclusion making for a mildly intriguing afternoon watch.
What movies have you seen which inspired you to change up your everyday? Please leave your comments below and get the conversation started!
The Sunlit Night is available to stream on July 17, 2020.
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