June 16, 2021
Peter Wollen’s 1987 two-hander has Swinton and Bill Paterson holed up in a hotel room watching Football in 1970s Jordan
Friendship’s Death review – Tilda Swinton goes alien in a radical-chic Beckettian fable
In 1987, the late English critic, theorist and film-maker Peter Wollen directed his only solo feature film: an insouciantly baffling two-hander called Friendship’s Death, now rereleased. It was a cinema of ideas, rare then, rarer now, high-mindedly produced by the British Film Institute and Channel 4. Bill Paterson plays Sullivan: a hardbitten, boozy journalist holed up in a shabby hotel in Amman in Jordan in 1970, during the civil war and the “Black September” era of PLO hijackings. He is astonished – though, amusingly, never quite as astonished you think he ought to be – to be confronted by a hyperintelligent and ethereally beautiful young woman named Friendship, who hangs out in his room and reveals herself to be a creature sent from a distant planet to study humankind. She is played by Tilda Swinton, like a cross between ET and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
There’s a fair bit of posturing and radical chic happening in this movie and it’s sometimes a little glib. But the droll double-act chemistry between Paterson and Swinton is unexpectedly great, especially considering the enigmatically childlike and lovably humourless demeanour that Swinton often projects. It’s not at all clear to me if Wollen or Swinton realised that this film is a comedy, but I think that this is what Friendship’s Death is: Beckettian in its way, but with something more emollient. Having crossly objected to the way Sullivan deafeningly hammers out his stories by banging away at the typewriter keys, Friendship taps out something of her own, taking up the machine when Sullivan probably needs it to file a story. “What are you typing?” asks the exasperated Sullivan. “My dream,” Friendship pertly replies. “… I dream of succulents, the flow of carbon in acid metabolism, hunters and gatherers …” Later we see Friendship alertly watching a football match on television, Arsenal v Spurs. (Could you watch first division fixtures in Amman hotel rooms in 1970? Live or just highlights?) “It’s hard for me to see the attraction of it …” she says.
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