Peter Wollen, who died at the end of 2019, was best known not just as a film theorist but as one of the inventors of the field of film theory. He was also a filmmaker, most often in collaboration with Laura Mulvey. Friendship’s Death, his final film, from 1987, was the first and only that he wrote and directed solo.
Wollen’s script is animated by some of the obsessions and enthusiasms that recur throughout his writings, and has the same dry humour, but as a film it is lit up by the performance of the then newcomer Tilda Swinton, in a role that foreshadowed the course of her singular career in ways neither she nor Wollen could have predicted.
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Swinton plays an alien called Friendship who has been sent from the Procyon galaxy to make contact with Earth’s intellectual and political elite, but has landed instead in a war zone and lost touch with home. Specifically, the war zone is Amman, Jordan, during the so-called ‘Black September’ of 1970, in which the Jordanian government cracked down on the Palestinian militants who had begun to occupy parts of the capital, but the complex and contentious background is not given in any detail, nor does it need to be known. The film begins with news footage from the time, including the Palestinians’ destruction of 3 hijacked airliners in the Jordanian desert, over which the second principal character, Sullivan, a Scottish journalist played by Bill Paterson, reflects in voiceover that images can conceal as much as they reveal.
The body of the film is a confrontation in a hotel room, over the course of a few days, between the hardboiled hack and the woman who fell to earth. Once Sullivan has decided that he may as well believe Friendship’s story, she explains that her mission is to understand why Earth’s human inhabitants appear hellbent upon their own destruction, and that of the other species they share the planet with.
Friendship’s Death may be as studded with recondite information and highbrow references as any of Wollen’s books, but this comparatively artless question, which might come from a child, is meant to be taken straight. Wollen had himself been a kind of foreign correspondent – an experience he had earlier drawn upon in his screenplay, co-written with Mark Peploe, for Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). But another side of him, the enquiring essayist, always going back to first causes, is reflected in Friendship.
Wollen’s first book was titled Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, and the power of sign systems, pre-eminently language, to shape perception, was central to his work. He was an admirer of the American novelist William Burroughs, for whom language was akin to a virus or addiction, and the desire to escape its alien grip is a feature of Friendship’s Death. Friendship compares herself with a musician without a score, burdened with the freedom of having to improvise; the end of the film abandons the codes of narrative, realist cinema altogether.
Names matter: Jack Nicholson’s character in The Passenger is called Locke, after the empiricist philosopher. Sullivan is a traveller, and the allusion to the Preston Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is probably not accidental. For much of the time Friendship’s Death is a screwball comedy in which Sullivan, the man who appears to know everything, sees his authority undermined by the young woman who joins him on his journey. Except Friendship isn’t a woman (much to Sullivan’s chagrin), but a simulation, a robot, a “specially designed prototype” in highly sophisticated data-gathering technology. In Wollen’s short story of the same title, published in 1976, “it was all too obvious” why Friendship “had been ‘scripted’ to play the part of a man”; but in the film Friendship herself says it was decided that having the appearance of a woman would make her seem more reassuring.
Interviewing Swinton earlier this year for Sight & Sound, Isabel Stevens commented that she hadn’t been attached to a particular school of acting, such as the Method, to which Swinton replied that “I’d have to go further and say I’m not anything… I really don’t identify as an actor at all.” As Friendship, she gives a kind of deconstructed star performance in which the gaps between performer, role and self are there in the script.
Friendship tells Sullivan that her designers were “only concerned to give me features that would have a public impact”, much like the screen goddesses of classical Hollywood. A postmodern Dietrich or Garbo character, Friendship undergoes spectacular costume changes within scenes. Being without an identity, she can identify with everyone, hijacked and hijacker alike, and her costumes chart a course from diplomat to guerrilla. In the same interview, Swinton said that the film “set the plate” for her, and indeed it is almost as if she has approached the business of film acting in the polymorphous spirit of Friendship.
Wollen was a theorist and practitioner of what he called ‘counter-cinema’, but he had once been a British disciple of the Parisian auteurist critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, and in a sense Friendship’s Death marks the return of the cinephile repressed, putting himself in the role of Dietrich’s director Josef von Sternberg, subject of one of his early essays. But it was also part of a movement he identified in retrospect as the ‘delayed’ British new wave of the 1980s, an art cinema every bit as aesthetically adventurous as its European forebears.