'Blue Night': Film Review | Tribeca 2018
Sarah Jessica Parker plays a lounge singer dealing with a life-altering diagnosis in this occasionally touching melodrama.
Death comes for Carrie Bradshaw.
At the start of documentarian Fabien Constant’s first fiction feature, Blue Night, New York resident Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) is told she has a likely malignant brain tumor. (Her doctor is played by former “Grams” Mary Beth Peil; it’s the Dawson’s Creek-Sex and the City crossover you never knew you needed!) Unlike Parker’s most famous character, however, Vivienne isn’t the kind of person who can go gab with doting gal pals or turn her tale of woe into a homiletic gossip column. She’s a moody lounge singer after all (Parker at one point gets to croon a Rufus Wainwright tune, though in a more Broadway ingenue style), so her true disposition, per the title of the album cover that’s prominently framed on her kitchen wall, is “Subtlety.”
Except not really, since Parker spends most of the opening scenes being anything but subtle. In the diagnosis sequence alone, she flails her hands about — constantly touching her cheeks, wiping her eyes, amateurishly indicating Vivienne’s every distraught thought — in ways that would make that metacarpal ham Jeremy Davies blush. By the time she exits onto the busy Big Apple streets, wandering around like a hollow avatar of the also-probably-doomed heroine of Agnes Varda’s great Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), you might be forgiven for thinking Blue Night’s 96 minutes will feel like the 24 hours over which the story takes place.
Fortunately, Constant’s evident interest in the story’s melodramatic possibilities quickly kicks in. For the most part, he reins in his lead actress’s worst instincts and, with the aid of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, allows the often beautifully composed widescreen images to augment Vivienne’s suddenly off-kilter existence. This is a movie comprising mostly vignettes, and there’s a lovely one about 20 minutes in as Vivienne does some impromptu dress shopping. The camera follows her, in a single shot, from the front of the store to the back, catching each pause over an item, every glance in a mirror with a searching sensitivity that comes close to attaining the stirring emotionality of a classic Hollywood weepie like Dark Victory (1939), in which a blinded Bette Davis defiantly marched toward her maker.
Yet Constant’s touchstones are more Euro art house — not just Varda’s Cleo, but the meta melodramas of Alain Resnais, whose eccentric tragic romance Love Unto Death (1984) plays in the background during a confessional encounter between Vivienne and her ex-husband, Nick (Simon Baker). As Blue Night goes on, it becomes, like many a Resnais film, more visually abstract (notably in a scene in which Parker’s face is engulfed in a virtual kaleidoscope of saturated colors) while the narrative (with a script credited to playwright/House of Cards story editor Laura Eason) is increasingly reliant on self-conscious coincidence.
Is Vivienne filtering her shell-shocked present through cliched tropes of art? Is she, effectively, making a hot-blooded movie out of her cold, clinical misery? That’s probably a more generous read than Blue Night deserves. Certainly the vexatious Lyft driver (Waleed Zuaiter) who becomes, by film’s end, the kind-hearted Virgil to Vivienne’s Dante is a shamelessly sentimental construct. At the opposite end is Jacqueline Bisset’s horror show of a mother, always ready to guilt-trip her daughter for pursuing the art life.
Superficiality reigns, but then a truly affecting scene will pop up like that early one in the dress shop, or a later one in which Vivienne has a chance meeting with an old friend, Tessa (Renee Zellweger), who masks her own creative disappointments behind perpetual, giggly tipsiness. Every element clicks into place, from the way the camera catches an errant fleck of cigarette ash as it drops onto Zellweger’s devil-red dress to the extratextual resonance of two artists baring their various setbacks and successes through a series of evasively verbal and revealingly visual cues. Would that there was more such aesthetic harmony throughout.
Production Companies: AMBI Media Group, Pretty Matches Productions
Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Simon Baker, Jacqueline Bisset, Common, Taylor Kinney, Renee Zellweger, Waleed Zuaiter
Director: Fabien Constant
Producers: Andrea Iervolino, Lady Monika Bacardi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alison Benson
Screenwriter: Laura Eason
Cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe
Editor: Malcolm Jamieson
Composer: Amie Doherty
Executive Producer: Anna Dokoza, Luca Matrundola, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Associate Producer: Claire Demere
Co-Producer: Liviya Kraemer, Laura Eason
Co-Executive Producer: Caroline Moore
Original Song By: Rufus Wainwright
Venue: Tribeca (Spotlight Narrative)