Full disclosure: Max Nelson works as an intern for Film Comment, the magazine which curates this film series at Lincoln Center.
Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights with Theodore, which screens this month as part of the 13th annual Film Comment Selects series, opens with an unexpected history lesson. A female narrator muses on the legacy of Paris’ sprawling Parc des Buttes-Chaumont over a montage of archival prints, drawings, and film clips, her train of thought chugging from the park’s origin in the utopian dreams of Napoleon III to its sinister significance for modern-day occultists. It’s a left-field introduction for a film that seems then to veer into more conventional territory: young and attractive Parisians, Theodore and Anna, hit it off at a party and end up spending the night together in one of the park’s secluded sylvan getaways. They come back the next night and the night after that; the park starts to exert a strange hold on them, and the film veers off again—this time for good.
Nights with Theodore’s young heroes end up conferring so much of their passion, curiosity and sensitivity onto the park itself that those jungle-like canopies, fairy-tale grottos, and candlelighted pavilions eventually start to look like the inside of a lover’s head. In films less wily than this one, such instantly evocative background markers might serve as convenient substitutes for actual character psychology; Theodore’s punchline is to make that substitution literal. Once we get to a talking-head interview with an “environmental psychologist” who suggests that the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is capable of physically siphoning away the life-energy of its inhabitants, we’ve forgotten all about Anna and Theodore’s puppy love—the real amour fou here is between a person and a place.