Set against the backdrop of the decolonization war between Algeria and France, Moulessehoul's novel—released under the pseudonym Yasmina Khadra to avoid censorship—tells the expansive, lifelong story of Younes (Fu'ad Aït Aattou), a boy forced to flee to the slums of Oran after his family's farm is lit ablaze by an Imperialist lackey. Given to his affluent pharmacist uncle Mohamed (Mohamed Fellag) and his French wife Madeleine (Anne Consigny), he is given more opportunity than the rest of his family, ostensibly raised as a white child with upper-middle-class peers.
As framed by the prolific, but typically flat, director Alexandre Arcady, these large plot points have the emotional gravity of an expository montage. Every moment is framed with a formal tension that makes the strained emotional outcries of the various actors seem more clinical than powerful. It also doesn't help that every moment of character realization is verbalized quite matter-of-factly—Younes' guilt; his father's pride; his uncle's compassion—and swept under the rug for more important, rather cumbersome and comprehensive narrative demands.
As Younes matures into a young man—known as Jonas by his French friends—his coming-of-age sexual dalliance with the much older Madame Cazenave (Anne Parillaud) becomes an indulgence for which he is punished when her daughter (Nora Arnezeder) proves to be the love of his life.
This later mirroring of unfulfilled, tragic romance with the Algerian War imposes feelings of guilt and broken identity on those present for the decolonization. Just as Younes is unable to take what he wants from life, leaving those around him to suffer and live a life of performed contentment, the compounding rage of being considered a second class citizen builds in the Algerian people.
It's a smart way to communicate the complex feelings of a historical uprising but isn't given a great deal of power or resonance within this package. Moulessehoul's story is simply too comprehensive and ambitious for a straightforward, feature-length, translation. With this approach, a miniseries would have been necessary to capture the experiences of the many characters throughout.
In cutting out reflection and expressionist intricacies—save the final scene—he's sacrificed the potential for this sweeping, rather moving, text to translate onto film as a timeless and lasting work. As it is, What the Day Owes the Night is a rather flat, exceedingly cold, severe work, which isn't really what makes a love story tick. (Wild Bunch)