When the Radio France sign pops up in “The Passengers of the Night,” you know it won’t be long before the movie’s most vivid character lands a job there. That’s because Élisabeth — the life force that gives coherence and meaning to this desultory French drama — is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has one of the most distinctive, seductive and immediately recognizable speaking voices in French cinema. Given her instrument’s breathy intimacy and how delicately it brushes the ear, though, whispering can certainly feel more accurate.
Élisabeth is a mess when the story opens, so that voice gets a workout. Her husband has walked out, leaving Élisabeth unmoored and badly strapped for cash (and in charge of their teenage son and a college-age daughter). In fits and starts, with tears and anxious resolve, she pulls herself together. Mostly, she does this by re-entering the world — she finds a job and then another, meets one lover and then a second — a trajectory that involves rejection but also approval. It’s an inviting, paradigmatic story of female self-discovery and empowerment, so it’s too bad that the movie’s hold on you proves far less firm than Gainsbourg’s.
The director Mikhaël Hers’s approach in “Passengers” is at once precise and elliptical. The story takes place over several years and begins in Paris on May 10, 1981, with brief scenes — a young woman looking at a subway map, people rejoicing in the streets, a car crawling through those same byways — that only fit together later. The girl is a wanderer; the people in the car, a family. The revelers in the street waving red flags and passing out roses (including to a beaming boy in the car) are celebrating the election of François Mitterrand to the presidency, making him the first Socialist to lead the country in decades.
The jubilant street scenes hover in the background like unanswered, provocative questions. While Hers scatters political references throughout the movie, he never draws a strong connection between these images and his main characters, who seem to have been just passing by. Instead, he quickly shifts focus to Élisabeth, her son, Matthias (Quito Rayon-Richter), and her daughter, Judith (Megan Northam), whose lives open up in naturalistic scenes of them at work, home and school. The children are trying to find themselves and so is Élisabeth, who, piece by fragile piece, rebuilds a sense of self, a process that becomes easier when she’s hired to screen callers for a late-night radio show host (Emmanuelle Béart).
Hers’s low-key realism nicely conveys the texture of the family’s life: He captures the bristling and the flatness of their shared and isolated moments, and seizes on emotions that brighten or darken their faces, moods and rooms. He also draws repeated attention to the large picture windows in the family’s apartment. Set high in a towering building, the corner flat is by turns a nest and enclosing frame, and while it’s far from the city’s touristic center it also seems very removed from the world below. Yet while Hers is sensitive to the minutiae of everyday life, he leaves a lot to the imagination, too, sometimes to an exasperating degree.
Time passes; things happen. Eventually, the young woman seen scrutinizing the map in the opener walks into the radio show and straight into the family’s life and then Matthias’s arms. She calls herself Talulah (Noée Abita) and has issues that Élisabeth unpersuasively overlooks, mostly, it seems, so Hers can complicate the story. At first hurried glance, Talulah brings to mind the protagonist in Agnès Varda’s “Vagabond,” a harrowing story about an unloved stray. But there’s nothing of interest about Talulah other than her swollen pout, just as there’s nothing especially involving about Élisabeth’s two children. It’s too bad that Hers spends so much time with these three, never grasping that the only character worth watching here is finally Élisabeth — though, really, I mean Gainsbourg, a true audience-whisperer.
The Passengers of the Night
Not Rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. In theaters.