Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Fabien Constant’s “Blue Night,” a sensitive but shallow homage to 1962’s “Cléo from 5 to 7,” is that it convincingly validates the idea of updating the Agnès Varda classic. The worst thing that can be said about it is that it peaks with a Sarah Jessica Parker cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” during the closing credits, but we’ll get to that later.
The story of a beautiful young woman’s brush with mortality, Varda’s film used the timelessness of its premise as an opportunity to contextualize the topical despairs of the day, which ranged from the ongoing Algerian War to Édith Piaf’s recent stomach ulcer surgeries. Seen through the eyes of a potentially dying chanteuse — the film’s title refers to the anxious hours that its heroine spends waiting for the results of a biopsy — everything became equally small, and the narcissistic Cléo was liberated from the limits of her own self-image. In 2018, when the promise of interconnectivity has prioritized self-image above all else, and communication has become so diffuse that we can no longer tell who’s even listening, Varda’s New Wave fable is ripe for reinterpretation.
And “Blue Night” is definitely a reinterpretation, not a remake. Screenwriter Laura Eason (“House of Cards”) borrows Varda’s basic structure, but flips it sideways with a deceptively major twist in the very first scene: Whereas Cléo Victoire was afraid that she might be terminal, Vivienne Carala (Parker) is shell-shocked by the news that she is. Sitting alone in a Manhattan doctor’s office, the famous jazz singer is told that she has an aggressive brain tumor, and that the average life expectancy for someone with her diagnosis is 14 months.
At first, this might seem like a radical change to the story, but it turns out there’s only a tiny sliver of light between the fear of a diagnosis and the reality of a death sentence. Everybody dies, and everybody knows it. What separates Cléo and Vivienne from the rest of the people rushing around their respective cities — what detaches them from their own lives, and connects them to each other — is their newfound inability to ignore that. It’s like they’ve been shown the sailboat hiding in a Magic-Eye illusion, and may never be able to unsee it.
Nevertheless, there’s real danger in immediately answering the dramatic question that drives the original. If we know Vivienne’s fate from the start, where do we go from there? Eason’s gentle script finds another source of suspense: Vivienne is scheduled to return to the doctor for tests the following morning, and she’s required to bring someone for support. Who’s she going to pick?
At 25, Cléo saw every passing stranger as a possible soul mate. At 53, Vivienne only has so many options (that has more to do with the narrowing of her life than it does the aging of her body — dressed in a Parisian blue that brings out her eyes, Parker radiates the crisp appeal of a snow princess, her character highly visible to all of the various men she encounters). Most of the movie is spent running through the roster of possible plus-ones, as a long summer afternoon stretches into an open-ended downtown night.
Does Vivienne feel closest to the hot drummer she makes out with after a rehearsal session for her upcoming tour? How about her manager (Common)? There seems to be some history there. Her teen daughter (Gus Birney) probably isn’t at the top of the list, but maybe her loaded ex-fiancée (Simon Baker) has a better shot. At the very least, it seems obvious that she won’t pick her overbearing mother (a very French Jacqueline Bisset); even the agitated Lyft driver she keeps running into (Waleed Zuaiter) seems like a more solid choice.
Shifting the focus towards Vivienne’s personal relationships is a clever decision, though a limp and drifting mood-piece like this would have been wise to present the stakes in more explicit terms. Constant opts for a hazier approach, allowing Vivienne to sink into an understandably catatonic state. Parker commits to the part with a profound sense of feeling, hinting at Vivienne’s numb inner life as she runs the full gamut of emotions and even warbles through an original Rufus Wainwright song in close-up. She hasn’t been this soft or sympathetic in years.
And yet, “Blue Night” is strangely disinterested in Vivienne’s specifics. More often than not, the movie uses her grim situation as a prompt to illustrate some more general sensations, like the obliviousness of a big city, and how — even on the hottest day of the year — it can still be cold to your personal concerns. In its unsubtle way, the film is sharply observant of the modern dynamic between private lives and public living, the terse scenes between Vivienne and her Lyft driver making hay of the old saying that “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Constant, here making his first non-documentary feature, calms his erratic camera down in these moments, as though he’s finally found the heart of the story.
Elsewhere, he seems as unmoored as his protagonist, as though he shares our growing confusion as to why Vivienne is shouldering her burden alone. It’s a valid question, and it can be interesting to watch her suss out the support (or lack thereof) that she’s earned from the people around her, but it isn’t long before the most urgent day of Vivienne’s life begins to lose its shape. None of her relationships reveal very much about her, and her random encounters reveal even less.
A chance run-in with an estranged friend (Renée Zellweger, in a very welcome cameo) leaves all sorts of meat on the table, minutes of screen time wasted on the vague understanding that growing older requires people to tighten their emotional bandwidth. Given the value this story places on time, these wasted moments are almost as distressing for us as they must be for Vivienne. We don’t get to the root of her loneliness — we don’t even know how deep it runs until she covers Tommy James & the Shondells over the credits (for what it’s worth, Parker’s breathy style is a beautiful fit for the song).
For an homage boasting a far more fatal outlook than Varda’s original, it’s frustrating and kind of perverse that “Blue Night” should be so gentle. “I’m not done yet,” Vivienne declares. But we never even see her get started.
“Blue Night” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.