Effusively romantic and yet profoundly melancholic, Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989) is Żuławski’s almost perversely cerebral take on love — much of the central relationship unfolds through language games and wordplay — though it also contains some of the director’s most erotic sex scenes. Out of all his other works, this is perhaps the most similar to his first French film, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) — which also featured French pop singer Jacques Dutronc in a starring role — and both appear to be straightforward romantic dramas about the developing relationship of a seemingly ill-matched couple. But Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours is so much more; at once lyrical and maddening, its themes of mortality, love, language, and trauma result in one of Żuławski’s most difficult to define, poetic films.
A brilliant computer programmer who has recently created a new language, Lucas (Dutronc), is informed that he has a mysterious terminal disease, one that will rapidly attack the language center of his brain and cause him to lose his memory before killing him. Thanks to a chance meeting at a café, he falls in love with the much younger, troubled Blanche (Sophie Marceau), who has had some recent success with a traveling nightclub act as a psychic. He follows her to a seaside resort, determined to give their relationship a chance despite their numerous personal obstacles and the memories of trauma that haunt them both.
The single element that makes the film so unusual — and, in a way, inaccessible — is the near constant manipulation of language and particularly the use of paronomasia that began with Żuławski’s previous film, L’amour braque, but is also of key importance here. Lucas says, “My words string along like pearls,” and they essentially bind together his sense of self, his disease, and his complicated relationship with Blanche. Word games serve as a form of seduction, but naming acts in a far more complicated function, as it is at once poetic and pedantic.
It is perhaps here that autobiographical elements creep into the film; Lucas’s relationship with the much younger Blanche parallels Zuławski’s lengthy partnership with Sophie Marceau not only in terms of the age gap, but in the sense that it hints at a particular exchange of power. Pygmalion — the mythic sculptor who fell in love with one of his own creations — has been frequently evoked to describe their relationship, but it’s also worth considering Svengali, the antagonist of du Maurier’s influential but somewhat forgotten novel Trilby (the inspiration for Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera), in relation to both the director and the protagonist of Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jour.
A beautiful young English girl who is the object of adoration for many men, Trilby falls prey to Svengali, a sinister Eastern European hypnotist and musician, who transforms her into a successful singer. While neither Lucas nor Zuławski possess his villainous qualities, Svengali molds Trilby into a talented performer with the use of hypnotism, which is coincidentally also an important element of Blanche’s stage act. Her partner, the hysterical, turban-clad François (Sady Rebbot), using the stage name of the Raj de Pondichéry, must first put her in a trance before she can use her mediumistic powers. Like Trilby, who doesn’t remember a moment of her singing career while conscious, Blanche claims to have no memory of what she has told audience members. She says that being on stage is “a black hole… I’m there but not really.” She admits to being taken back to the kitchen where she crouched as a child, watching her father abuse her mother.
Though Lucas does not use hypnotism on her, he subtly manipulates her through language. Their lexicons — distinct because of differences in age, class, intelligence, and education, as well as Blanche’s compulsive need to rhyme — begin to bleed together. In the essay “On Language as Such,” Walter Benjamin discussed the connection between mind, identity, and language. He wrote, “Because the mental being of man is language itself, he cannot communicate himself by it, but only in it” (65). Lucas defines himself, remembers himself, and orders the mind that is slipping away from him, purely through language. Many of Zuławski’s protagonists attempt to violently exert control over a world thrown into chaos, but Lucas’s attempts are internalized and gentle, arguably even creative rather than destructive.
Benjamin implies that the use of words, particularly to name things, is a fundamentally creative act and, in essence, a divine one. “Language is therefore both creative and the finished creation; it is word and name” (68). Lucas’s way of connecting with Blanche through language, then, is not only an instructive act and a fertile one, but is also in itself a type of union. Through words, he finds himself in Blanche; he tells her, “My love, my life, when I’m lost, I find you. My speech is nourished by you.”
The function of storytelling, wordplay, and even confession — their respective traumatic pasts and the resultant emotional pain link them together just as much, perhaps even more so than sexual attraction — is what makes Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours and Lucas himself so different from other romantic tales of older men finding love with younger partners at the seaside. Classic literary examples, like Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Nabokov’s Lolita, or even Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, generally involve the protagonists imposing an elaborate fantasy on the object of their desire, while Lucas seems to approach Blanche from a place of innocence, a genuine desire to know rather than the will to possess.
An example of this can be found in their first romantic scene together, in his hotel room in Biarritz, where he has followed her. In a profoundly tender moment, she falls asleep in his lap and he undresses her and puts her to bed without any sexual overtures; as in L’important c’est d’aimer (and a similar scene in Possession), Żuławski conveys a moment of romantic love stripped of its erotic connotations. But unlike L’important c’est d’aimer, where there is obviously a sense of frustrated tension between the potential lovers, here there is a rare moment of peace and almost luminous understanding that echoes an earlier line of Blanche’s dialogue: “I came looking for you because you touched my heart.”
In general in Żuławski’s films, love is sudden, chaotic, and ultimately random, striking haphazardly into the lives of his protagonists. It acts as a powerful, often violent agent of change. The majority of these relationships revolve around a love triangle and this is one of Żuławski’s only films without one. He coyly references this in two mirrored scenes: one in which Blanche gets into bed with her husband (who she seems to be married to in name only), a bisexual who is already there naked with another man, and a later scene where Lucas sits down on a bed that has two naked women in it.
Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours takes quite a different approach to love and it is perhaps his most tender film. Here love is about knowing; about shedding the masks we wear and putting the performative aspects of life to rest; and about understanding mutual experiences of suffering. It’s difficult for me to resist the impulse to read this film, along with La note bleue (1991) and La fidélité (2000) — in other words, his three films with Sophie Marceau after their relationship began on the set of L’amour braque — as deeply personal catalogues of an intense, but complicated partnership.
Żuławski shows that in both positive and negative ways, to some extent love involves a dissolution of individual identity, the merging of respective traumas and personal pain. Blanche, manipulated by everyone around her and unable to really ever shut out psychological agony thanks to her alleged psychic gifts, cries, “Love means pain, lots of pain.” The film is littered with examples of romantic couples who drive each other to despair, violence, and even death. For example, Lucas and Blanche’s first meeting is in a café (a common setting for romantic turbulence in Żuławski’s films), where they witness a domestic dispute between a potentially drunk middle aged couple that ends with a tearful reconciliation.
Their first sex scene is a disturbing blend of sexual and psychic intimacy. He tells her, “talk to me like you’re in a trance,” and the sequence entails a sort of therapy session. She tells him of the abuse she suffered as a child and reveals she knows that his parents died at night, in a body of water, which corresponds to his repeated flashbacks of his father drowning his mother, presumably an act of jealousy. Though many of them adopt a nonlinear (or seemingly nonlinear) structure, this is one of Żuławski’s few films to make use of the flashback, particularly during moments when Lucas is slipping away because of his illness, or when Blanche is slipping into a trance state — in other words into liminal spaces where their earliest, deepest pain exists as if in some sort of temporal loop.
The film’s central contradiction is that people come together in love with seeming inevitability, even though it often destroys them. Lucas says, “I hate weddings, couples, betrayals, people tearing each other apart,” mere moments before he tells Blanche that he loves her. While it would be a stretch to say that the film has masochistic themes, love is bound up inextricably with suffering. I’ve already written about Dostoyevsky’s influence on Żuławski — particularly in regards to his two previous films, Le femme publique, a loose adaptation of the novel Demons, and L’amour braque, inspired by The Idiot — and the author’s words in a story with several parallels to Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” ring true for Żuławski’s film: “We can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise, and we know of no other sort of love” (157).
But unlike the unnamed protagonist of this rather sentimental story, who decides to commit suicide because he is convinced of his own utter ridiculousness, Lucas contends with more than just emotional suffering or existential crisis thanks to his rapidly advancing disease. With the exception of tuberculosis, that Romantic-era plight often symbolic of the tormented artist, terminal illness is not an overwhelmingly popular subject in cinema (though I’m intentionally ignoring the dozens of recent, milquetoast female-centered melodramas with cancer-related plots). In Susan Sontag’s seminal Illness as Metaphor, she conjectured that this is because “it seems unimaginable to aestheticize the disease” (20).
While Lucas’s specific plight is unnamed, he’s told that it is a virus that “kills 400 a year” and its onset is rapid, inexplicable; it will consume his brain. It’s difficult to romanticize terminal illness — and thus its victims — because it sits at the crossroads of social taboo and our unconscious fears of death. Sontag wrote, “Any disease that is treated as a mystery and acutely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious… Contact with someone afflicted with a disease regarded as a mysterious malevolency inevitably feels like a trespass; worse, like the violation of a taboo. The very names of such diseases are felt to have a magic power” (6).
Of course, exceptions of this abound when disease is used as a symbol for moral decline, mental illness, or even a general state of existential suffering — as Lucas’s seems to be. Sontag wrote much about the historical perception of a link between disease and mental illness and even just general unhappiness, moody temperaments, and repressed desire, quoting Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed” (Sontag 20-21). In general, Mann used disease frequently throughout his novels: the protagonist of The Magic Mountain contracts tuberculosis, Death in Venice’s Gustav von Aschenbach dies of cholera, syphilis is a main theme in Doctor Faustus, and the heroine of The Black Swan is inadvertently given a short-lived second youth thanks to uterine cancer.
Many decades before Thomas Ligotti would suggest something similar in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Mann even hinted that life itself is a disease. He forged a link between biological and spiritual damnation in The Magic Mountain when he wrote, “And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial? The first step toward evil, toward desire and death, was taken precisely then, when there took place that first increase in the density of the spiritual, that pathologically luxuriant morbid growth, produced by the irritant of some unknown infiltration; this, in part pleasurable, in part a motion of self-defense, was the primeval stage of matter, the transition from the insubstantial to the substance. This was the Fall” (285-286).
While Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours takes place in a world parallel to The Magic Mountain, with a cast of Żuławski’s typically colorful side characters populating the Biarritz resort, the film lacks the caustic if somewhat complicated nihilism of Mann’s novel, with its bleak ending that implies the protagonist is going off to die in the First World War. In a strangely optimistic conclusion, Żuławski’s protagonists walk into the Atlantic, committing suicide together. This is also the culmination of the film’s numerous water themes, which range from visual references (Lucas takes a bath fully clothed) to verbal ones, as well as the lake that serves as the location of his parents’ murder-suicide. Lucas says, “Love is a pond that can drown you.” Earlier in the film, he tells Blanche, obliquely referencing his illness, “I’m like a bathtub, letting the water run out.” She says, “Let it run out on me.”
Carl Jung wrote of water (particularly sea water) as symbolic of the collective unconscious, while it is often described in mythology and literature as a place of exploration and transformation, the “sea change into something rich and strange” that Shakespeare wrote of in The Tempest. This is not the lonely, stormy sea of Joseph Conrad, another of Żuławski’s major literary influences; some of the film’s last lines of dialogue note it as a place of rebirth for the two lovers: “Like the current flowing into the river, like Blanche, awakening in love with her lover. By accident, not knowing where or when, they’ll complete the circle again as children.” As a result, their suicide feels more like a beginning than an untimely end, a way to a reassemble themselves from broken parts. He tells her, “Even if we’re different, together we’re whole.”