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French Film Festival UK 2021 Review - NIGHT SHIFT

night shift review
Three Parisian cops face a moral dilemma when tasked with escorting a political refugee to the airport for deportation.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Anne Fontaine

Starring: Omar Sy, Virginie Efira, Grégory Gadebois, Payman Maadi

night shift poster

Since arriving on the scene in the mid-90s, French writer/director Anne Fontaine has never been out of work, delivering movies at a rate close to one per year. That's likely because she makes the sort of middlebrow films (Gemma Bovery, The Innocents, Reinventing Marvin) that are relatively easy to get financed. While she's clearly talented, Fontaine largely specialises in the sort of movies that leave you thinking "It was fine, I guess." With police drama Night Shift, she's finally made a movie with some bite, even if it does get bogged down by unnecessary subplots in points.

Adapting a novel by Hugo Boris, Fontaine takes the setup of Hal Ashby's The Last Detail - in which a pair of military policemen are tasked with bringing a young AWOL soldier to face charges, and grow to empathise with him along the way – and reworks it to tackle the moral minefield of refugee deportations.

night shift review

In Rashomon style, we're introduced to three Parisian cops in the opening act, which details a seemingly humdrum day from each of their perspectives. Virginie (Virginie Efira) appears to have a troubled home life, her husband accusing her of neglecting her family thanks to her job. Aristide (Omar Sy) is a boorish, happy go lucky type, and doesn't so much as break a sweat when Virginie reveals that she's carrying his child and is set for an abortion the following morning. The middle-aged Erik (Grégory Gadebois) seems to be using his job to escape from his own doomed marriage, and is desperately trying to stay off the booze and cigarettes.


The three cops find themselves thrown together on an assignment to escort political refugee Tohirov (Payman Maadi) from an asylum centre to Charles De Gaulle airport, where he will be deported back to Tajikistan. At the centre they're stopped by an activist who pleads with the cops to delay Tohirov's flight, as the European Court is about to rule in favour of him remaining in France in the next couple of days. The cops brush her off with jobsworth dedication to the badge, but when Virginie reads Tohirov's file she realises that they may be sending him home to face execution. Can she convince Aristide and Erik that the right thing to do is let Tohirov "escape" before they reach the airport and seal his fate?

night shift review

Along with The Last Detail, Night Shift takes a cue from 12 Angry Men, as Virginie attempts to win her colleagues over to her side. She's the most liberal minded of the three, whereas Erik dismisses Tohirov as "probably a terrorist." Aristide is apolitical, and seen as an easier convert to Virginie's cause than the stuck in his ways Erik. Structurally, it recalls yet another movie, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, in how it spends its first act establishing three characters before putting them inside a vehicle for the main narrative. It's arguable that the first act of Sorcerer is largely pointless, and that the backstories of its protagonists have no essential bearing on what is a Wages of Fear remake, but I've always found those opening segments more engaging than the truck-bound thriller that follows.


In the case of Night Shift I'm on the other side of the fence. We really don't need so much time devoted to the lives of Virginie, Aristide and Erik in the hours leading up to picking up Tohirov, and their various personal tribulations don't thematically tie in with the moral dilemma they're ultimately forced to tackle. Is there any point to Virginie and Aristide having had an affair, or Erik struggling with addiction issues? What does any of that have to do with the fate of Tohirov? Wouldn’t it have carried more dramatic weight if Virginie's revelation of being pregnant with Aristide's child had come out during the car ride rather than being presented to us beforehand?

night shift review

Regardless of the arguable redundancy of Night Shift's first act, once the quartet of characters are shut inside the vehicle, Fontaine's film takes flight. Shooting four people in a car is notoriously difficult, but Fontaine finds just the right places to put her camera to tell this intimate story. Rather than relying heavily on dialogue, as you might expect from this setup, half the story is told through glances in rear view mirrors, and in one effective sequence Aristide runs through a series of red lights when he realises his female colleague's plan to let their captive loose. Sy does fantastic work in this scene. With only his eyes visible in the mirror, we can see the trace of a smirk as Aristide is cruelly punishing Virginie. The drama is beautifully played by all four members of the assembled quartet, with Maadi particularly impressive in a role that requires him to convey his fear without the use of language.

There's no doubt a more nuanced version of this story to be told at some point in the future, but in the meantime Night Shift makes for a thoughtful and immaculately acted, if a tad conventional, thriller.

Night Shift
 plays online at the French Film Festival UK from March 13th to 15th.



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