April 13, 2013

Fashion Cues in Last Night (2010)

In writer-director Missy Tadjedin's 2010 film Last Night, Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington play a married couple whose relationship is tested when, on a night apart, they are each tempted to stray by a former lover (Guillaume Canet) and new colleague (Eva Mendes), respectively. Despite the solid quartet of actors, the film performed horribly on limited release, relegating it to the "forgotten films" pile.

Part of the reason for the film's lack of success could be the low-key manner in which the story unfolds. Despite the heat promised by the actors and the premise, this is no pot-boiling thriller or suspenseful drama; Tandejin is more interested in mining the characters' romantic backstories and presenting a level-headed portrait of all the motivations that people have to cheat. Upon its release, the film was criticized for presenting gorgeous people living in affluent Manhattan in spacious apartments and asking the viewer to feel something was at stake. (It's called escapism, no?) However, from the beautifully-shot scenes (the majority of scenes are set at night, cloaking the actors in velvety darkness) to said apartments, the beauty on display serves as a visual reminder of all the temptations abound in the characters' lives.

As a female viewer watching a film written and directed by a woman, though, I found myself reacting most to the fashion -- specifically the way the clothes worn by Knightley and Mendes so precisely signaled the psychology of their characters. Obviously, this is the exact role that costuming plays in cinema. But in the same way that it takes a female director such as Andrea Arnold to depict a fresh take on female sensuality, the visual cues provided through clothing in Last Night felt specifically guided by the vision of a female director (and costume designer Ann Roth).

Take, for example, one of the first scenes in the film, where Joanna (Knightley) and Michael (Worthington) head to one of Michael's work parties. She's running late and also couldn't care less, so she dresses in simple black pants and a black sweater with no bra to boot. Even in a crowd that is dressed mostly in dark colors, she still stands out for the casualness of her outfit.

Later, on the verge of making up after a fight with Michael, her willingness to reconcile is indicated by the hoodie she wears, which is too obviously large to be her own.

In contrast, when she agrees to meet former lover and fellow writer Alex (Canet) for dinner on the night her husband is away on business, she makes a specific point of dressing up.

The beautiful black dress that she opts to wear is a wrap dress, the implication being that it is easy to take on and off.

Meanwhile, Michael and Laura (Mendes) are on a business trip in Philadelphia. In this parallel storyline, it is Laura who wears the wrap dress, which also happens to be a staple of work wear for women. In the end, one dress will come off, and the other will not.

It's fitting that at the end of the film, the future of Joanna and Michael is also signaled by fashion. In one of the last shots, the camera rests for a beat on Joanna's shoes: a beautiful satin pair obviously only worn on important occasions, begging the question: what were you up to the night before?

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