Last Night: Massy Tadjedin’s Directing Debut

Toronto Film Fest (Closing night gala)—The collision between temptation, jealousy and arousal is at the center of “Last Night,” the intriguing feature debut by the Iranian-born, American-educated filmmaker Massy Tadjedin.
In exploring the emotional fault lines of a couple, Tadjedin deploys a symmetrical structure, which feels a bit preordained at times. This strategy undercuts the material of some of its mystery and edge.  Fortunately, though, the combination of some terrific actors and the smart, suggestive direction help elide over the sometimes awkward material, even compensating for an ending that never quite delivers.
From the velvety darks of Peter Deming’s gorgeous nighthawk cinematography to the superb editing of Susan E. Morse, lending a staccato rhythm to the elegantly designed crosscutting, “Last Night” burns with craft and style. It is a different kind of roundelay. Her best known credit is the screenplay for “The Jacket” (also starring Keira Knightley), Tadjedin explores with tact and sensitivity the slippery moral choices animating the characters’  behavior.
Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington play the central couple, Michael and Joanna Reed. They’ve been married about four years, and enjoy a privileged and comfortable Manhattan existence. The only incongruent aspect of their marriage is her somewhat floundering writing career. Having written one quickly remaindered book, she is clearly dependent on the dazzling corporate ascension of her husband.
That point comes home with a vengeance at a social party for Michael’s work, where Joanna notices his ambiguous connection to a beautiful new designer, Laura (Eva Mendes). Back at their apartment, she confronts him about it and his somewhat evasive and indirect response only deepens her suspicion about his intentions. She’s particularly burned by the fact he has never mentioned the woman to her in the past. The issue remains unresolved given he’s bound to leave the next morning for a Philadelphia business trip and she is part of the team meeting the client.
Edgy, perturbed, her own professional aspects less than promising and convinced that something transpired between her husband and the other woman, Joanna is startled early the next morning by her encounter with Alex (Guillaume Canet). He is a charismatic and handsome French writer with whom Joanna had her own ambiguously amorous connection a couple of years earlier during a period when she and Michael had broken off their relationship.
Tadjedin cuts between the two scenarios of desire and possibility, as Joanna plays out her playful and erotically charged dance with Alex and the business sessions bring Michael and Laura into a tighter embrace. In answering the question of the possibility of a past liaison between Michael and Laura, she provides an answer while also introducing other unforeseen dimensions. 
Likewise, she opens up the perspective, introducing, for instance, another couple, Alex’s publisher and his wife, to balance out the equation and deepen the point of view about what marriage requires through compromise and persuasion.
A frequent collaborator of David Lynch, Deming imbues the work with a sensual texture, especially the water imagery that figures prominently in the back and forth exchanges of Michael and Laura. The sharpness of the writing illustrates the erotic pull and jolt of the new and the different. In both cases, the outsider or insurgent figure succeeds in getting one part of the married couple to reveal their own depths of frustration, desire, temptation and need.
Knightley is much more expressive and concentrated here than she was in the recent “Never Let Me In.” She gives a layered and sharp turn, and is particularly effective in how she uses her taut, wiry frame to express the inner tumult and anxiety of the character while simultaneously suggesting the degree of excitement, daring and shame in her behavior. Worthington’s part is quieter and less showy, but his restraint contrasts well against the fiery and luminous Mendas. Likewise, Canet’s Gallic cool goes a long way to understand Joanna’s attraction to him.
“Last Night” falters a bit at the end–a bit too predictable in how the sexual temptation plays out–but this is smart and intriguing material that suggests a very promising new director.
By Patrick Z. McGavin