In the early 1990s, Madonna met with French New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda about the idea of directing her in a remake “Cléo from 5 to 7.” That film, which was told virtually in real time, followed a free-spirited chanteuse confronted with her own mortality as she wanders the streets of Paris. Though the project never came to pass, its ghost lives on in French director Fabien Constant’s “Blue Night,” which considers itself more of an homage than a remake, pilfering from not just “Cléo,” but Antonioni’s “La Notte” and a handful of other European art films as well.
A mopey indie drama that delivers an unusually introspective role for “Sex and the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker (who clearly relishes the opportunity to go deep), “Blue Night” wraps with Parker whisper-singing “I Think We’re Alone Now” over the end credits. That’s fitting for what basically amounts to a stylish, second-rate cover version of the 1962 classic in which the situation is transferred to New York, and the character has a lot more life experience than tragic twentysomething Cléo did at the time.
Exploring a different — and decidedly less glamorous — side of the Big Apple from her fizzy HBO series, Parker plays a fading songstress named Vivienne who, in the opening scene, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The doctor gives her, at best, 14 months to live. That’s an inherently dramatic situation, and one that Vivienne will spend the next 24 hours wrestling with how to accept. So why doesn’t the drama ever crystallize into something we can feel?
Part of it is Parker’s relatively limited range as a performer, though Constant — a documentary director (“Mademoiselle C”) drawn to fashion and film-world subjects — has almost no experience working with actors. Constant clearly worships his leading lady, but the diva treatment (evident from the opening shot, in which Parker’s piercing green eyes fill the widescreen frame) defies the kind of emotional intimacy to which “House of Cards” writer Laura Eason’s script aspires. Rather than inviting audiences in to what she’s experiencing, Parker remains hidden behind the champagne-blonde spirals of a bad wig (which, unlike “Cléo” star Corinne Marchand, she never removes on camera) and more thick black eye liner than the Olsen twins combined (globby mascara that never runs, even as she fights back fake tears).
Constant can’t decide whether Vivienne is keeping her emotions buried deep inside or wearing them on her sleeve, and because Parker plays it somewhere in between, we rely on other characters to elucidate the situation. At one point (after a throwaway moment in which she spontaneously decides to buy frozen ice cream from a sidewalk vendor, waffling between the various flavors, before throwing away the cone after taking a single bite), she runs into Renée Zellweger, as a friend she hasn’t seen in years, celebrating her birthday at a neighborhood bar. Somehow, this acquaintance is perceptive enough to deduce that Vivienne is sleeping with her drummer, but totally misses that she’s trying to absorb a death sentence.
That’s nothing compared to Vivienne’s downright oblivious mother (Jacqueline Bisset), so self-involved that she overlooks her daughter’s suffering altogether, more concerned with the details of her own love life. For some reason, Parker’s character is Franco-American, allowing Bisset to show off her command of the language — something she does far more convincingly than Parker, who sprinkles a few clunky French phrases in with her dialogue, but otherwise seems alien to the language. Vivienne’s ex (Simon Baker, empathetic) and teenage daughter (Gus Birney, an impressive singer in her own right) appear to have an inkling that something’s wrong, although it’s unclear whether they’re reacting to her attitude or the fact that she drops by after midnight.
At the rehearsal for a big upcoming show, Vivienne’s manager (Common) is more concerned about her tardiness than the reason she was running late. One could argue that there’s strength in the fact Vivienne struggles with her diagnosis on her own, and that’s well within Parker’s capacity to convey: She has always read as fiercely independent, although that quality works against the vulnerability this part demands — unless, of course, audiences have some personal experience with cancer that they can project upon the character, who spends a lot of time trying to find a quiet place in New York where she’s free to sit with her thoughts.
Leaving the hospital, she’s thrust into the oppressive commotion of the sidewalk, as DP Javier Aguirresarobe’s camera (aggressively unstable, even in relatively quiet moments) swishes every which way to mirror her disorientation, even tilting up at one point to study a nondescript skyscraper. Vivienne grabs a ride, only to be confronted with the Arabic-speaking driver’s personal drama (Waleed Zuaiter plays the only Lyft driver in town, with whom she develops a touching kinship after several rides). Later, right outside her building, she sees a group of young people splashing one another with water bottles.
This is one of New York’s many paradoxes: Crowded as it may be, the city can be one of the loneliest places on earth, as Vivienne comes to realize, unable to find someone sincere with whom to share what’s on her mind. Ironically, that fact ultimately feels more tragic than the diagnosis itself, calling into question what she has achieved in her 50-odd years on earth, if she has no one close in whom to confide.
One might expect that melancholy to come through in her music, as represented by her song “Unfollow the Rules” — written by Rufus Wainwright expressly for the film — although the scene in which Parker performs it reinforces the degree to which the movie never quite penetrates her point of view (the camera circles, studying her in the blue light of the nightclub, without capturing any sense that those lyrics ought to mean more to her now than ever before). It’s the instant in which everything Vivienne is going through ought to connect with the struggle of the modern woman — who, at this very moment, is being asked to be more independent that ever. Although this film barely scrapes the surface when it comes to conveying everything someone in Vivienne’s shoes might be feeling.