Thursday 15 October 2020

Friendship's Death (Peter Wollen, 1987)

Film theorists Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey were married for 25 years and made a number of films together, including Amy! and Riddles of the Sphinx.  As a filmmaker, Wollen—who died late last year—branched out on his own to make Friendship's Death, which was to be his only solo feature film.  While Wollen will always be best remembered for his seminal 1969 book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, his 1987 rarity Friendship's Death is a film that fully deserves its new 4K remaster, which plays as part of the Treasures strand at the London Film Festival from Saturday until Tuesday.  If you happen to miss its festival screenings, a much-needed Blu-ray of this new version will be available at some point over the next year; the disc was due to be released this year, but scheduling issues have pushed it back, with the ETA now being June 2021.

Friendship's Death is effectively a two-hander between Bill Patterson's war correspondent and Tilda Swinton's alien.  Friendship, the extra-terrestrial, is on her way to Massachusetts Institute of Technology when she drifts off course and finds herself in Jordan, which happens to be in the middle of the Black September conflict of 1970.  There, she's steered away from danger by Patterson's Sullivan, and the two go on to enjoy a number of conversations that both sides appear to find equally fascinating.  Sullivan isn't sure whether to believe Friendship's story—she looks and sounds completely human, and he voices suspicions that she might be an agent—but he's certainly interested in finding out more about her.  As the Palestinians and Jordanians go at it outside, Friendship and Sullivan hole up in a PLO-controlled hotel; over a bottle or three of whisky, the pair discuss a range of topics including technology, humanity, football, and of course the conflict that rages around them.  

Although it was made 33 years ago, much of Friendship's Death's dialogue feels remarkably fresh and relevant, with both the man–machine interface and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict remaining two ongoing issues that aren't going away anytime soon.  The point, or at least one of several, appears to be that Friendship is much more sensitive than many humans, and this is something we've witnessed in many a sci-fi tale, with Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence featuring an especially poignant example.  Does Friendship have as soul, or just a facsimile of one?  It doesn't really seem to matter to Sullivan, who enjoys Friendship's company regardless of what may or may not lie beneath her warm, inquisitive exterior.

Perhaps the only gripe with Friendship's Death is that is often feels a bit too much like a filmed play, with two actors and as many sets forming the bulk of the snappy running time.  But that isn't too much of a problem when you have characters and dialogue as engaging as this.  The two leads are both very good here; Swinton, currently starring in Pedro Almodóvar's The Human Voice (which also plays at this year's LFF), gives an appealing performance in a role that's very different from the sort we're now used to seeing her play, while Patterson, just a few years on from his great turn in Bill Forsyth's chronically underrated Comfort and Joy, imbues the world-weary Sullivan with a compassion that belies his cynical, battle-hardened demeanour.  Friendship's Death is something of a minor gem, and its new lease of life is extremely welcome.

Darren Arnold

Image: BFI