BERLIN (AFP) - Oscar winner Juliette Binoche plays a polar bear-slaying, avalanche-dodging Arctic explorer in Nobody Wants the Night, which got a frosty reception at the opening of the 65th Berlin film festival on Thursday.
Set in the forbidding reaches of Greenland's frozen tundra in 1908, the film directed by Spain's Isabel Coixet is based on the true story of Josephine Peary, the headstrong wife of Robert Peary, an American adventurer who aimed to lead the first expedition to the North Pole.
The French actress plays Josephine, an imperious, well-educated woman who sets out on a disastrous quest to share in Robert's glory, with a guide played by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne.
She makes it to his base camp where she meets young Inuit woman Alaka, who she is stunned to learn is her husband's pregnant mistress.
Japan's Rinko Kikuchi, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in the 2006 drama Babel, plays Alaka.
The women, swaddled in animal skins against the bone-piercing cold, begin a long vigil waiting for Robert to return.
As the polar winter and its near perpetual darkness set in, Josephine struggles with her jealousy of Alaka, who does not feel the same sense of "ownership" of Robert.
But as Alaka's pregnancy progresses and their food supply runs low, Josephine, an accomplished hunter, assumes responsibility for their survival.
The picture, which met with stony silence at a press preview at the festival, was partly shot in a remote region of western Norway which previously stood in for the ice planet Hoth in "The Empire Strikes Back".
However Binoche, 50, said the cast had spent most of its time filming in the scorching Canary Islands.
"We had only 10 days in Norway - the rest of it was all studio in Tenerife in June with all the fur," she said, adding that she ordered a refrigerated meat truck to the set to help get into character.
"We had to create the chills because it was really bloody warm in the studio," joked Binoche, wearing a snow-white trouser suit, at a press conference after the screening.
Coixet, 54, said she had been inspired by the Yukon adventure stories of Jack London but wanted a fresh take.
"Nobody has told the story of the North Pole from the point of view of the woman," she said.
Binoche said she saw the film as a kind of woman's western.
"You have a white, educated person... she goes into the wilderness and finds a new way of feeling, a new way of behaving and this kind of nowhere place becomes the place where she kind of humanises," she said.
"We come in the world, in this western world , as thinking we know everything, having power, we possess everything, and the elements and the others are telling us, 'hang on a minute'." Binoche said she saw the title, a line from the film, as part of that epic quest.
"Nobody wants the night, nobody wants to go to that dark place but we have to sometimes if we want to become human," she said.
Kikuchi, 34, said she had jumped at the chance to work with Binoche.
"I grew up with her movies," she said. "She's a very strong, beautiful person... naturally she taught me a lot." It was the seventh film Coixet has presented at the Berlinale, as the event is known, following features including My Life Without Me in 2003 and Elegy, the 2008 adaptation of a Philip Roth novel starring Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley.
Coixet is one of three female directors in competition at the Berlinale, Europe's first major film festival of the year, and only the second woman to hold its coveted opening-night spot.
"My only hope is I don't want to be the last one," she said.
Nobody Wants The Night is one of 19 films vying for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded at a gala ceremony on February 14 by jury president Darren Aronofsky, the US director of "Black Swan".
Aronofsky hailed the arthouse flavour of the Berlin cinema showcase, telling reporters that the "benefit of festivals is that they bring attention to films that have a hard time creating space in this world".