The Night (2020)

The Night first published by

Some way into Kourosh Ahari’s The Night, a painting in the lobby of the Hotel Normandie catches the attention of Babak Naderi (Shahab Hosseini) as he waits for the elevator with his wife Neda (Niousha Noor) and their baby daughter Shabnam (Leah Oganyan). The painting is, paradoxically, an approximate reproduction of René Magritte’s already paradoxical painting Not To Be Reproduced (1937), which depicts a man and his reflection in the mirror both looking in the same direction, so that only the backs of their heads are visible to us. As Babak stops to look back at these two men looking away, we see him seeing, and for a moment it is as though we are in a hall (or hell) of mirrors, with a visual conundrum at its centre and a recurrence of viewings that fan out from it, leaving the unsettling suggestion that perhaps there is someone else also observing us from behind. It is a strange trompe l’oeil effect that implicates us all in its optical illusion. 

In fact The Night begins with Babak himself in front of a mirror. As he looks up from washing his face, for a moment he sees a blank space where his reflection should be, until just as quickly his double is there again, and normality is restored. It is an uncanny opening, insinuating an emptiness or absence in this man’s self-image, while also introducing a note of surrealism that will come to pervade the story. Via a neat ring composition, the closing image will also show Babak before a mirror, and indeed throughout The Night we are being shown the Naderis’ life through a glass darkly, in a distorted form that exposes to view the sides and angles of them that they would prefer to remain hidden. 

Babak came over to America from Iran five years before Neda, and that time apart has created a gulf, widened by the need to navigate two cultures (and two languages), and narrowed by the arrival of their beloved Shabnam who serves as a bridge of affection between them. Babak and Neda have, this very day, acquired matching tattoos to signify anew the permanence of their bond, but they are keeping secrets from each other, and caught in a spiral of guilt and recrimination from which they are struggling to find an exit. All this psychodrama finds its perfect stage in the Normandie, where they end up late one night after Babak, a little drunk from the dinner party they have just left, becomes lost on the road. Not only is the hotel full of mirrors, but it echoes other hotels from other horror films (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, 1980; Mikael Håfström’s 1408, 2007; Ti West’s The Innkeepers, 2011). It is a place of (un)rest, between here and there, protean and purgatorial, where people stop temporarily on their way to another place – and it perfectly accommodates this couple’s anxious intermediacy and alienation.   

In this irrational space, as apparitions come a-knocking, as the receptionist (George Maguire) and a homeless man (Elester Latham) make creepily cryptic observations, as a summoned police officer (Michael Graham) tries and fails to instil a realistic perspective, and as things very definitely go bump and bang in the shadows, Babak and Neda must endure a long – perhaps endless – dark night of the soul in which, even as they themselves risk becoming trapped, all the ghosts of their guilt are eager to break free into the morning light. Babak may repeatedly complain of toothache, but it his conscience which nags at him more – and the hotel finds a way of reflecting all his hidden thoughts right back at him. 

Co-writing with Milad Jarmooz, Ahari places an ordinary family with its ordinary frictions (expressed mostly in Farsi) into a psychic interzone that refracts and incarnates all their anxieties in nightmarish form. It is an unnerving ghost story, generating most of its tension not from cheap jump shocks, but from a growing sense of entrapment, as one man, unable or at least unwilling to tell the truth, risks being caught in the labyrinth of his own sin and self-reproach forever. Even if the limbo-like hotel can become a forest, or a hospital ward, or any other place in the corridors of the mind, Babak seems incapable of escaping, or even fully facing, himself – and his denial holds everyone back from moving on. 

strap: Kourosh Ahari’s disorienting ghost story books a guilt-laden Iranian couple into an American hotel that is also a hell of mirrors

© Anton Bitel