One Night Stand (1997)

D: Mike Figgis
S: Wesley Snipes, Nastassja Kinski, Robert Downey Jnr.

A successful commercial director on a day trip to New York City to see an old friend recently diagnosed HIV positive has a chance encounter with a beautiful woman. A year later when he returns to witness his friend's dying days, he discovers that the woman is his friend's sister-in-law. Complications ensue.

Stylish but uninvolving drama from the director of Leaving Las Vegas, or perhaps, if we were to give a sense of forewarning rather than hope, the director of Stormy Monday, Internal Affairs and Liebestraum. Mike Figgis has always been a stylist, and sometimes his moody camerawork and self-composed music scores overwhelm the story he's trying to tell. Stormy Monday just about managed to fall the right side of neo noir, Internal Affairs had a risible plot to begin with which sank under the weight of self-importance imposed upon it by portentous direction and Liebestraum, while it has many admirers, was too weird and excessive for most audiences. Leaving Las Vegas was buoyed by a script so compelling that it couldn't be kept down, and catapulted Figgis to the forefront of the 'A' list. One Night Stand is the result of his clout. It is relatively promising on paper, and benefits from the presence of Snipes (in a much meatier role than those offered by Murder at 1600 and U.S. Marshals), but the basic script needed to be stronger to survive Figgis' characteristic direction. As is, the film overwhelms the movie, and the result is barely watchable.

The first point which jars is the score. It generally drowns out the dialogue and leaves us to concentrate on the visuals. These are attractively rendered in the usual manner and are fairly suited to the material. Such a cinema has a place and function, and may appeal to some viewers. Figgis crafts a world of dissatisfied people living in comfortable but oppressive surroundings and delves into the world of upper middle class angst recently dominated by Woody Allen, only with a much darker tone. But this is not enough to sustain interest in the human drama, at least as far as casual audiences are concerned.

Despite Snipes best efforts, his character is not inspiring. We don't buy his world-weary affectation given his affluence and potential contentment and we don't get enough of him to understand why he is driven to act in the way that he does in order to have any sympathy for him. Kinski is given little chance to develop her character, which is unsurprising given the entire point of the film. The script goes to enormous (almost ridiculous) trouble to justify the sexual encounter at all, with a series of contrivances and coincidences bringing the two people together which seems much ado about nothing rather than the icy hand of fate. The consequences of their liaison are then not even all that tangible. Everything happens on an internal, psychological level, with a payoff only in the dying minutes. Figgis tries hard to visualise this, but hits against the age-old brick wall of images versus prose as the medium of film narration. Despite all the deliberate camerawork and production design, we don't really get inside Snipes' head fully enough to empathise with him, and on the surface all we see is a lot of moody hanging about.

There seems to be a wealth of subject matter present in the film, with asides about race, office politics, the nature of heterosexual sexuality (Snipes' past relationship with dying Downey Jnr. is raised with some question marks). But it eventually comes down to a twist ending which is really the final death blow. In an attempt to fashion a contemporary adult drama, Figgis constructs a shaggy dog story with a silly punchline; all build up and atmosphere, but no real substance. If it does chart the waters of contemporary sexuality, it does so simply by showing how muddied they are. This is not in itself sufficient justification for an ultimately self-defeating movie. Curiously, this type of atmosphere and theme was explored somewhat more effectively in the Irish film November Afternoon, replete with a jazz score and plenty of middle class angst, though the latter film dealt with quite a different aspect of sexuality.

There may be those for whom One Night Stand will provide particular pleasures, and it is visually quite rich. If you can accept the frames of reference offered by Figgis from the outset (after a strange piece-to-camera opening scene with Snipes), it may prove rewarding. But it seems that following the success of Leaving Las Vegas, Figgis has returned to his more personal and familiar cinematic world where if you care to join him you are welcome but which is not a place everyone would want to be.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.