Friendship’s Death is the only solo feature as a director from Peter Wollen, who is better known as a film theorist. His key work was the book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, which to this day is required reading in film theory classes. His most notable film credit, however, is that he was one of the credited writers on Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger. Wollen passed away from Alzheimer’s disease in December 2019.
Given the fact that Wollon was primarily a film theorist, it shouldn’t surprise that Friendship’s Death is more interesting in theory than as a film to watch. It’s a quasi-sci-fi film set during Black September, the period when a civil war was brewing between Jordan, Israel and Palestine after Jordan lost control of the West Bank. Tilda Swinton plays an alien robot that when you read the description makes it sound like The Woman Who Fell to Earth. However, it’s more like a Play for Today with a sci-fi plot: in fact, it’s almost a chamber piece between Swinton’s extra-terrestrial and burnt-out war correspondent Sullivan (Bill Paterson), as it’s mainly a two-hander with Swinton and Paterson in a hotel room whilst the civil war rages outside.
Friendship’s Death is a little too low-fi for my taste, but interesting political and philosophical questions are raised during the film’s brisk 78 minutes. Think My Dinner with Andre, but with a science fiction twist. It’s a little dry, but in what is almost Tilda’s Swinton’s first film (this was made around the same time as she started appearing in most of Derek Jarman’s later films) you can tell she “has it” already. She also wears some pretty groovy costumes. As usual, Paterson is pretty great as like Swinton, he is one of the best British actors around. It also has a gratuitous William S. Burroughs namedrop, which is always amusing—not quite to the levels of the one in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, but it’s a good one.
The BFI release comes in a dual-format edition with a new 4K restoration that played the 2020 BFI film festival. The extras include a couple Q&As from the festival, one that features both of the film’s stars, and one with Wollen’s ex-wife and frequent collaborator Laura Mulvey. The final extra is a documentary that Wollen and Mulvey made in 1983 about Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti. The booklet in the first pressing brings together various new and archival writing on the film, including an interview with Wollen.