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Elie Wajeman • Director of A Night Doctor

"I wanted to treat him like some sort of private detective, winding his way through the dangerous, big city"


- The director discusses his brilliant, existentialist film noir which was decorated with Cannes’ Official Selection label in 2020 and is finally on general release in French cinemas

Elie Wajeman  • Director of A Night Doctor
(© Lucie Belarbi/Partizan Films)

A tense and very well-made movie carried by the acting performance of Vincent Macaigne as he negotiates his way through the chaos of Paris by night and through his own tumultuous existence, A Night Doctor [+see also:
interview: Elie Wajeman
film profile
is French director Elie Wajeman’s 3rd feature film after Alyah [+see also:
film review
film profile
(Directors’ Fortnight 2012) and Les Anarchistes [+see also:
film profile
(Critics’ Week 2015). Awarded Cannes’ Official Selection label in 2020, the movie is finally touring cinemas in France, courtesy of Diaphana.

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Cineuropa: Where did the idea for a film noir about a Parisian night doctor come from?
Elie Wajeman: It started with me wanting to make an adaptation of Tchekhov’s Platonov, to turn him into a night doctor and to infuse the ensemble with a film noir feel and a criminal story. But, gradually, as I worked on it, I moved away from Platonov. To begin with, I wasn’t too familiar with the world of a night doctor, but I felt that it would make for a formidable fictitious character through which I could portray both the city and people’s private worlds by entering into their Parisian apartments. I wanted to treat him as if he were a purely novelesque character, like some sort of private detective, winding his way through the dangerous, big city.

When dealing with drug users, this night doctor finds himself in a grey zone with slightly blurred boundaries.
His commitment sees him operating on various levels. The one he works on with drug users borders on illegal, but he’s not actually working outside of the law because he has the right to prescribe Subutex, which has actually been saving lives for many years now. But I took things that bit further by way of the burden of family duty he feels towards his cousin, which will really tip him over the edge and into illegality. The issue of grey zones has always been central to film noir offerings.

How did you go about researching and writing this screenplay which is very documentary-like, in many ways?
I love carrying out research and I always looks for stories which allow me to do so. I met with gendarmes specialising in Subutex trafficking, and pharmacists who told me about the underside of their profession, because it’s utter chaos behind the shiny, calm facade: we mustn’t forget that they sell drugs, chemical substances which cause transformations. I also attended the trial of a doctor who was accused of dealing in Subutex, as well as that of a pharmacist who was suspected of being part of a drug-dealing network. I realised that sliding into illegality was quite a common thing. I also, obviously, accompanied night doctors on their rounds on numerous occasions - the ones who have put an end to daytime living, just like our man in the film who has become addicted to the night but who will, nevertheless, return to the light. It all fed into the screenplay’s marked documentary-style writing.

You then set novelesque elements against this documentarian background.
I aim for some kind of tension between a documentarian approach and fiction. The world of the night, and night doctors themselves, lend themselves well to fictionalisation: you’re moving outside of normal society, hidden love stories can easily happen. But it’s also very important to have documentary-style scenes, especially with the patients.

You’ve mentioned Mean Streets, Le flambeur, Night and the City, Bad Lieutenant and Hawk’s Scarface as your references. The film is also reminiscent of James Gray’s early work.
I wanted to tell the story of a family in Paris, with a Slavonic, Russian, Eastern European-Jewish side to it, and to step away from French stories, whilst also making one. Just like Dostoyevsky’s White Nights which resulted in Luchino Visconti’s movie, as well as Two Lovers. What I’m especially fond of is the tension that’s at play in stories which fall somewhere between genre films and existential films, such as in films like The Last Detail by Hal Ashby, for example. That said, A Night Doctor isn’t an American-style film because the stories I direct are very French. What I like about this film is the fact that I really went for it: it’s violent, harsh, dark.

Owing to the health crisis, the film is being released in cinemas a year after receiving its Official Selection label from the Cannes Film Festival. Have you made the most of this time spent in limbo to move forwards on other fronts?
I’m currently working on two projects. One of them is in the same vein as A Night Doctor: it’s a dense and dark, Parisian film, but it’s a bit funnier and also stars Vincent Macaigne - meeting him turned out to be a key moment in my filmmaking career.

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(Translated from French)

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