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BIFF 2019
O Beautiful Night: A wild, surreal but unfulfilling evening

Marko Mandić and Noah Saavedra in "O Beautiful Night"
© Komplizen Film 2019, Image: Jieun Yi

Adding to a genre of films that focus on wild, raucous evenings where anything and everything can happen, O Beautiful Night knows how to stage a strikingly surreal moment, and then another, and then more still. Alas, it fails in its attempts to splice them all together.

By Sarah Ward

Even cloaked in O Beautiful Night’s intoxicatingly neon colour scheme, the tiles behind Juri (Noah Saavedra) and his pal (Marko Mandić) stand out. In recent Hollywood-produced films such as Hanna, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, Captain America: Civil War and Atomic Blonde, Berlin’s orange-hued Messedamm subway has played a prominent part - to the point that any sight of gleaming, rectangular-shaped tiles in a subterranean German location instantly screams the city’s name. Even if O Beautiful Night doesn’t venture into the specific space’s depths, it looks like it does. In the process, it taps into an inescapable truth about the recognisable underground passage. The Messedamm subway looks a treat on the big screen, but, in the cold light of reality, it’s just a brightly adorned thoroughfare between a train station and a former convention centre.
Sadly, O Beautiful Night follows this lead - glistening with an alluring sheen, but proving largely empty and average otherwise. Marking the feature debut of director and illustrator Xaver Böhm, it has been garnering attention since its Berlinale premiere earlier this year; however, beyond its inky aesthetics and its purposefully anarchic vibe, it’s a slight and unfulfilling affair. Driving scene from "O Beautiful Night" Yuri and Nina head out on the town with Death | © Komplizen Film 2019, Image: Jieun Yi


Juri’s friend isn’t just any old guy he meets in a rundown casino; according to the sly older gent, he’s Death himself. With hypochondriac Juri more than a little obsessed about his potential impending demise - dreaming about a raven eating his heart from his chest, notably - coming across the afterworld’s hellish harbinger doesn’t seem all that surprising. Before the sun rises on what could be his last night, the twenty-something musician flits between opium dens, peep shows, bars, zoos and go-kart tracks. He’s a party to a drug deal, plays Russian roulette and falls for a beguiling Nietzsche-reading erotic dancer by the name of Nina (Vanessa Loibl). In possibly farewelling life, he finally learns to live it, taking a whirlwind tour through the ups and downs of human existence.

Some scenes, such as a tense, gun-toting sit-down where pulling a trigger could be devastating or liberating, demonstrate O Beautiful Night at its best. As Juri sweats in increasingly unhinged company, he embraces the erratic nature of being alive - and his nocturnal emotional rollercoaster ride comes firmly into view. Other scenes, while reaching for the same insights, feel stock-standard. As Juri, Death and Nina chart a cyclic course, repetition sets in, with Böhm seeming more enamoured with the visual potential of each episodic incident than its underlying meaning. Vanessa Loibl in "O Beautiful Night" Vanessa Loibl plays Nina in her first major feature film role | © Komplizen Film 2019, Image: Jieun Yi


Considering the gorgeous, vibrant and electric imagery that it splashes across the screen, O Beautiful Night’s intoxication with its own reflection is somewhat understandable. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it’s easy to get lost in Jieun Yi’s dark, enticing, roaming cinematography and ignore the story completely. The film isn’t that experiential by design, however; it isn’t trying to eschew narrative and simply take viewers on a careening, stream-of-consciousness journey. Perhaps if it had, it mightn’t have proven as meandering - here, as Juri and Death keep playing out the same dynamic, the feature’s 89-minute running time feels much longer.
It doesn’t help that Saavedra, Mandić and Loibl can’t invest their parts with much in the way of depth. Their troubles primarily stem from Böhm and Ariana Berndl’s script, but the anxious Juri always remains a passive presence, while Nina serves the story instead of feeling like flesh and blood. And, although a layer of uncertainty lingers over Death and his true purpose (including the idea that he could just be an eerie drug addict), he remains a forceful one-note creation as well. Like characters, like film, with O Beautiful Night lurching forth into a lurid evening looking for adventure and wisdom, but mistaking seductive chaos for substance.