A Thousand Times Goodnight, a film whose narrative purports to chart the experiences of a female war photographer, can be stamped with the same indictment that the protagonist herself is accused of in her photography: glamorisation.
All visual representations of suffering border on the danger of aestheticizing it, almost by definition; but, glamorisation and, even worse, exploitation are far more problematic matters. While the film does not aim to represent war per se – it’s more about the photographer – it feels as though A Thousand Times Goodnight uses the whole Third World conflict scenario purely as a backdrop to a portrait of very First World family drama: jarring, to say the least.
When the war photographer Rebecca, played by Juliette Binoche, takes her daughter to a Kenyan refugee camp for a school photography project there’s trouble at the camp: we see shootings and rampages – the stuff of daily newsreels fictionalised for your HD viewing pleasure – solely through the lens of Rebecca’s bravery. The director emotionally foregrounds the photographer’s bravado before the suffering of the people she is shooting. Although emotional identification with the protagonist is part of the dramatic conventions of a certain type of narrative cinema, this supposed identification is scrammed by the overwrought performance.
Juliette Binoche, a usually very talented actress capable of registering distress with the barely detectable movement of an eyelash, has become the go-to actress for the image of the damsel in distress. In a Thousand Times Good Night she delivers a hand-wringing, chest-beating performance worthy of Ancient Greek mourning rituals. Potentially very interesting inklings of a complex relationship with her husband, played by Game of Thrones hunk Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, are not explored in any depth. In fact, the actor seems to serve no other purpose than being a bearded Abercrombie model.
Not every film has to deal with the intricacies of its subject matter: it can just set out to tell a simple narrative story of the cheap tear-jerker kind and everyone can go home happy. But with a subject matter as ethically problematic, thematically and emotionally rich as a war photographer’s trials and tribulations, it is problematic that no nuances are explored. This is particularly surprising given that the director himself, Erik Poppe, is an ex-war photographer.
What is the position of the war photographer ethically in relation to the subjects of their photography? How does the main character feel about the disparity between her model-home catalogue life in a cozy Irish town and the conflict-zones she works in? Is she a spectator or an active participant in a conflict? Sometimes the questions a film does not ask say more about it than the questions it does, which in this case are not very many, bar: Why did Juliet Binoche agree to do this film?