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I am a great admirer of Juliet Binoche, as many movie goers are; if she’s in a film I’ll go out of my way to see it.  First recognized in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), some will remember her best as the determined nurse to the horribly disfigured Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient (1996) or perhaps from the lesser known  The Widow of St. Pierre (2001), or from any of 40 other films(!). So, when 1,000 Times Good Night (2013) popped up in my restless movie searching the other night, and her name appeared I paused.  Not only that, it was about war and human violence, the object of my adult-long attempts to understand: why, despite all the evidence, do we humans throw ourselves into it so credulously, believing all the promises?  Two reasons to watch.  Click, click.

Movies 1000 TimesIn it she continues her long list of accomplishments as a serious actor playing a serious role, this time as a war photographer in serious times.  The story, about a photographer’s compulsion to be a witness to the most dangerous human situations and the reverberations this has in her life, was written and directed by Erik Poppe.  A Norwegian photographer of similar biography, he had the imagination to switch the male and female roles.  The unsettling images are even more unsettled in us because our expectation that this is what men do, court danger as a measure of manhood, is upended. Rebecca (Binoche) goes out, laden with cameras, to Afghanistan to tell the story of female suicide bombers. Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) stays at home, a marine biologist in Ireland, and at-home parent to two daughters, about 9 and 15.

The opening scenes with Rebecca, allowed to photograph the preparations, spiritual and technical, of sending a young woman out on a mission are almost unbearable to watch. We know what suicide bombers do, the human carnage that will come. Rebecca seems not to know; she is fully immersed in getting “the shot,” every angle, all distances.   When she asks permission to go in the van with the fully dressed bomber for some final frames we begin to be disturbed:  what is really in the photographer’s heart?  What moves her –the adrenaline rush, the responsibility and importance of reporting or a kind of necrophiliac desire?

Though she gets out of the van before the girl triggers her bomb, she is seriously wounded, along with several others, moments later.  Returned to Ireland, intubated and sedated, we meet her husband, Marcus.  The tensions between them because of her constant self-endangerment is soon apparent.  He tells her the children are terrified every day she is away and that if she cannot stop, he will leave her, once she is recovered.  Coster-Waldau is the perfect husband and father, perhaps too much so.  The two girls are sweet and smart.

Rebecca tries “to become an ordinary person” as she says, though it’s clear the cost is high.  It’s not so much a junky’s withdrawal as a junky’s temptation. Life is more, much more, out there.  Some tender and silly love scenes make it seem as though they might work it through; she might become a wife and mom in a more typical mold.  We secretly hope not, I think.  We want her to be who she is, strong, determined, professional, though perhaps with a little more care taken.  But on the other hand we think, ‘this is crazy. Love is with you.  Embrace it.’  She tries, but we see the struggle, between two desires, or better, between lust and love.  Her attraction to witnessing war is almost adultery.

When her older daughter, triggered by some of her mother’s photos, pleads to write a school report about life in a Kenyan refugee camp,  an ominous bell rings.  After more stress-testing of the family, dad agrees, and the two women, mother and daughter, set off for the camp, U.N. operated, and “safe.”

Predictably, it is not safe.  After a couple of hours of shooting and filming together — large eyed children, colorful women, lounging men– sudden violence erupts, clan against clan it seems.  The U.N. camp director pushes the two towards a van, and safety but Rebecca can’t help herself.  This is what she does. Screaming at him to let her alone and get her daughter to safety she plunges into the melee, shooting, shooting, shooting. Her daughter is uninjured but terrified.  When what has happened — rampaging gunmen, torching of tents and instant executions– becomes clear at home, Marcus orders Rebecca out of the house.  “I want this filth gone!” he roars, throwing her camera out the door.

There is more to be told, of course. More family drama, more self-searching. The domestic scenes are done quite well, with some predictability in language and emotion.  Had Binoche been less intense or Coster-Waldau less convincing in his concern and protective urge our suspension of disbelief might have sagged.  Indeed, some reviewers report eye-rolling at a line or two.

Even so, it is quite novel and wonderful to see a woman torn between the power of adventure and danger and the power of family and security, a predicament usually thought to be a man’s.   Rebecca tells her daughter at one point that what she does is impelled by rage  –at what people do to each other and what most ignore.  She wants the comfortable and well-off to be pulled out of their bubbles of contentment, to spill their morning coffee when they see her photos in the news.  Yes.  Perhaps we have felt a similar rage.  But we also wonder.  Is that all?  There also seems to be a gruesome urge in her to put a finger in an open wound, just to have the experience.

The family works into a partial resolution, neither fully reconciled nor fully estranged.   Rebecca returns to Afghanistan to finish the story.  But there is a change.  She can no longer be solely ‘in the moment,’ behind the lens, insulated by adrenaline, focus and purpose. Now there is a fifteen year old, her daughter’s age, before her.

And so the movie ends, quite appropriately it seems to me, not tying up a movie problem with a movie answer but leaving us to think — about war, and terror, and human compulsion, our own clarity or honesty about our motives, and about desire and how we make our choices, how we count our accomplishments and losses.  About the temptations of death.

It added to my growing sense that the attraction of war, for many, over the centuries — likely from the time of our ancestors 2 million years ago– has something to do with transcendence.  A feeling of being outside oneself, of joining mystically or emotionally, something larger — Allah, God, or a sense of human union.  For some, that transcendence is prepared for and prayed for, as the young suicide bombers. For others, it happens in moments of extreme danger, as recounted again and again by those who have been in battle.  Others, perhaps most of us, get to the edge of it in extreme sports, or in going to witness, to photograph or report on, violence in the making.  I know it did for me, in my youth, as I pushed with a camera into a mob of Irish youth throwing stones at British soldiers, who were firing rubber bullets back.  I knew I would not be hit (!), and kept shooting away; my companion, more sensible, took hold of my shirt and kept me away. I was irritated and said so. This was where I was meant to be!

So, despite a bit of unsteadiness here and there 1,000 Times Good Night is an excellent film for young (15 let’s say) and old, men and women, kids or no kids, danger addict or danger dodger.  You’ll come away with something you won’t put down for a while.