Away from light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night.
Romeo and Juliet, I.i
There are star-crossed lovers, lovers cut into little stars, stars that exhale meteors, but the tales of love woven across the centuries of literature remain in our memory because we fear one thing: that the love of which we read will never infect the air of which we breathe. Those who claim that love is but chemical dependency provoked to perpetuate a species have never loved one afternoon or evening on this earth; and though we cannot begrudge them their bitterness their words need not concern us. The love that is high as the sun in day and cautious and hidden as the moon when darkness reigns, this is what each of us desires, however estranged we may feel from the world at large. And however we may speak of teenage infatuation, as exemplified by the most famous couple in literary history, love is a barometer of maturity: it is the ability to know when to cast down one's arms and call off the search. We cannot expect a fourteen-year-old maiden to know anything of love, and the expectation may be equally unreasonable for a rather frisky eighteen-year-old from Toulouse. Which brings us to this film.
The premise may be old hat, but something about it occludes sleaze or cynicism. A young woman, Anne Larrieu, dite Nina (Juliette Binoche), departs her rustic hometown for the bright lights of Paris with the tentative goal of becoming an actress, which is another way of saying she wants to do something where she wouldn't have to be herself. We first see her walking into Gertrude Soissons Real Estate and onto the radar of a rather hapless lad named Paulot (Wadeck Stanczak). Paulot, whose name conjures up a nursery rhyme, quickly develops feelings for her although the signals she sends suggest nymphomania, insouciance, and a certain amount of self-loathing (the most famous being, "the nights I have spent alone in Paris I can count on one hand"). Nina does have one modest role in a bawdy farce, "Tea or cocoa," which is one of the few lines uttered by her character, a ditzy, underdressed French maid, and Paulot is mysteriously presented with an extra ticket. Now anyone with even scant knowledge of female machinations would know that a pretty young girl with an unstable job and no real friends in a city like Paris does not just happen to have an extra ticket. Paulot becomes in short order her bodyguard and confidant but unlike most of the other male characters not her lover. That duty is predominantly left to his enigmatic and self-destructive flatmate, Quentin (the immortally handsome Lambert Wilson).
Quentin's appearance about fifteen minutes in points the film in a more somber direction – precisely the "artificial night" of Shakespeare's play and for good reason. In slow details that reward the viewer's patience, Quentin is revealed to have once been a fine actor in a production of Romeo and Juliet four years prior. His Juliet, a woman we never get to see, was also his lover after rehearsals and the passenger in the car wreck that only he survived. He is brooding, histrionic, and completely self-absorbed – in other words, a typical actor. When Nina whacks him with a shoe, the camera remains on his face as he bleeds and cackles. We never get to see her expression because it doesn't matter to him and, therefore, not to us. The first time he and Nina make love is preceded by a ridiculous display with a razor, a weapon that will be wielded on different occasions throughout the film, and not only by Quentin. His stalking of Nina ("I get the feeling you've been following me since we met") worsens the tensions between him and poor old Paulot, who end up convening unwillingly at her apartment one fateful morning. After parboiling himself in frenzied platitudes and maniacal grins, Quentin departs to a dog's-eye perspective beneath some bumpers. We never glimpse his body but are simply informed in good theatrical fashion that a death has occurred off-stage, at which point the third act begins with a sad middle-aged gentleman called Scrutzler (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Quentin was once Romeo and the daughter of Scrutzler, whose name evinces an ignorance of German nomenclature, was his Juliet. Scrutzler himself was the director who hand-picked Quentin ("The first minute I saw him, I knew"), and his performance was so impressive that even when Nina re-encounters Fred, her dressing room lover at "Tea or cocoa," Fred remembers just how good Quentin was. So when Nina meets Scrutzler – in the words of Quentin, "a madman who calls me every day trying to save me" – there is only one destiny left to be revealed.
Romeo and Juliet's quandary, if one may employ such a term, is that they are too young to know better and expiate their sins on the basis of their artlessness. They immerse themselves in second-hand passions because the idea of love is more valuable to die for than the courageous act of life. To her credit, one thing that Nina doesn't wish for is death, perhaps because life has yet to fulfill its promise. On more than one occasion she is accused of being immune to love, owing in no small part to her nightly gambols, and she wonders whether this is true, whether she is doomed to be the halfwitted maid who "always finds something to like about a man." There is enough nudity to satisfy those who feel such a life cannot be accurately depicted by suggestive parlor talk alone, but the flesh that does appear is never gratuitous and always advances the story line (when Paulot finally makes his clumsy, telegraphed move, for example, Nina just begs him to get done with it since he's just like all the rest; naturally, he leaves flustered and appalled). The story line, however, does not quite drift where we think it might go, and again we see that much more effort was exerted in sculpting the film than in naming it. And at some point towards the end it also occurs to the viewer that the actress who has become Juliet has the same name in our reality. Quite a burden for a young actress unless she lives past fourteen.