Katherine Connell Revisits The American Friend

Among many unusual moments in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend is one short scene in which art framer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) delicately picks up a piece of gold leaf and drapes it over the edge of a knife. The gossamer thin sheet shivers in the air and glides down onto his open palm, before fluttering in place on the skin. Superfluous of plot, this action is insignificant and defies reason. On the other hand, this instance of random sensual exploration feels essential to a film in which glimpses of touch—private or shared—indicate a desire to brush up against something intense and undiluted.

Potent yearning is familiar ground for Patricia Highsmith’s iconic bisexual con man/murderer Tom Ripley (here played by Dennis Hopper). Though I was initially intrigued by The American Friend as an adaptation of Highsmith’s novel Ripleys Game, I didn’t anticipate loving the film. I was disenchanted by my doctorate and in the throes of an independent study on adaptation and transgression (one that stretched into limbo because of my participation in a campus strike), so when my supervisor nudged me to watch the film as applicable to my research interests, it went to the bottom of my study pile in favor of more overtly transgressive titles like Salò. Moreover, I wasn’t seduced by the notions of nationalism suggested by the title and the winking cinephilic fanboyishness premised by a cast that mostly included other filmmakers (many of the film’s gangsters are played by directors, including Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Gérard Blain, and Jean Eustache).

Even now that I have built up experience as a critic, magical, full-bodied first cinematic encounters still make finding words tricky. The American Friend proved no exception. When I somewhat begrudgingly got around to viewing it many weeks later, my entire focus was drawn into its diegesis via some cocktail of Robby Müller’s capacity to create otherworldliness within mundane spaces and the shy eroticism of its focal queer dynamic. Academic writing can unlock a film’s depths in its rare affordance of length and deliberation. In this case, however, my academic approach created an analytical distance that seemed plagued with inaccuracies. I’ve since spent years trying to decipher the specific pull of The American Friend. The whole experience has left me feeling much like Hopper’s Ripley, who existentially rambles into a tape recorder as he tries to understand his dislocated sense of self, or lies out on a pool table taking an endless stream of Polaroid selfies without looking at the developed pictures.

My initial attempt at writing about The American Friend now feels strangely fitting. It wasn’t my argument or lenses, but the framing. Wenders also finds trouble with the frame: that box which filmmaking must always—at a point—acquiesce to living within. Jonathan’s vocation as a framer contextualizes some of the film’s most striking images. He struggles to make ends meet (literally fitting corners of the frame together) and in one scene hangs an empty frame around his neck before bashing it to smithereens across his shop counter. Immediately entering the shop and tenderly picking up one of these blasted pieces of wood is Tom Ripley, the perfect lure for Jonathan’s increasing frustration within the invisible frames that govern his existence: the routines and performances of heterosexual masculinity and fatherhood. The two men pass the broken object back and forth, each magnetized toward the other with total solemnity.

The American Film begins with Ripley’s latest enterprise, selling counterfeit paintings in Münich forged by an artist named Pogosh (Ray, who plays the character as Hopper’s flirty, homoerotically glossed daddy in several scenes set in New York). In Ripley’s first encounter with Jonathan at an auction, he is rebuffed when his offered handshake is refused. Ripley is told by an eavesdropping colleague not to take offense: Jonathan’s terminal blood disease has resulted in a decline in his talents and a bad attitude. Instead of brushing off this slight rejection, Ripley impulsively sells the information to criminal acquaintance Reeves Mînot (Blain), who manipulates Jonathan’s hypochondriac anxieties to convince him to kill two men. As Ripley becomes closer with Jonathan over coded and loaded flirtations, a growing sense of fondness guilts him into assisting with the second murder, swooping in to save his companion in the nick of time. When asked by Jonathan why he instigated the whole absurd plot, Ripley admits that it was because the snubbed handshake “hurt his feelings.”

In trying to trouble the borders of his own filmmaking, Wenders persistently points to feeling over seeing or, at least, seeing things from odder, more transgressive perspectives. Optical illusions and analogue animation instruments are scattered throughout Jonathan’s family home and shop, often aligned with the perspective of his child (an idea Wenders promptly returns to in Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire). Ripley and Jonathan exchange these objects as gifts, a covert acknowledgment of their shared, non-normative modes of perception. Increasingly, Jonathan rushes through spaces that geometrically scaffold and frame his body—images of a figure bursting through enclosure. Jonathan is often shown in spaces where his fragmented reflection trails him in mirrors, screens, and glassy surfaces. He rubs his forehead against his likeness in a train window with such vigor he appears as if trying to merge with his own shadowy, retreating id.

All this makes for the kind of intellectual fodder well-suited to a scholarly article, which, in my case, tried to pin down the film’s sensual hold via haptic theory, affect theory, and queer theory. In trying to guide myself closer to the film using these lenses, I placed layers between it and me. I was pulling a Jonathan. There was safety in the familiar structures of academic rhetoric, but unfortunately the film had framed me. In Dennis Hopper’s embodiment of Tom Ripley I saw my ugliest internal mechanics exposed with unsettling acuity. There is both comfort and shame in identifying with Tom Ripley. For queer viewers or other outsiders well-acquainted with longing, his particular brand of social isolation and retributive pining can feel guttingly familiar. To desire as Ripley does is to spin out: to find an excess of feeling but nowhere socially acceptable to place it, to search for reciprocation and only find its glimmers in love objects slightly—or sometimes starkly—out of reach. In this character, Wenders finds a powerful formal analogy. The American Friend is, in many ways, an awkward film. On a narrative level, viewers are left to infer much of its connective tissue: characters are unexplained, they speak cryptically, ends aren’t tied. While the film is potentially disorienting, its appeal rests precisely in this roughness, falling back on its frenetic mess of feelings—that chaotic compass which propels Ripley—to build momentum.

Apparently Highsmith was, at first, so repelled by Hopper’s performance that it took her years to come around. Compared to more acclaimed embodiments such as Matt Damon’s desperate longing or Alain Delon’s sinister grace, Hopper is messier, a personification of the free-wheeling American masculinity cemented in Easy Rider (a reference Wenders drops within the first five minutes of the film, when Ripley sings “The Ballad of Easy Rider” on the balcony of a German mansion). Meeting Wenders fresh off shooting Apocalypse Now, Hopper immediately established himself as a volatile and unruly talent. On set, studious thespian Ganz was so put off by his co-star that tensions escalated to near fisticuffs. For all that Hopper’s casting and costuming (he’s often seen wearing an outlandish cowboy hat) stand in for an idea of Americanness and for a style of independent filmmaking, his unpolished performance as Ripley transcends any symbolic function to reveal the character’s raw but unpredictable sensitivity.

During a quiet meeting in an empty bar, Ripley confesses to Jonathan, “I would like to be your friend, but friendship isn’t possible.” Jonathan replies that this makes him “feel very comfortable.” What these men desire is not legible friendship but an undefinable counterpart, desire that deviates from the status quo. In writing about The American Friend again, I have experienced the same initial frustrations. Just as I encounter the film’s potent aliveness, I find it receding from description. As Ray’s Pogosh murmurs at Ripley’s retreating figure after an argument, “A little older, a little more confused.” Perhaps that’s the case. As I watch over the familiar grainy scenes of liquid light and effervescent color, of reaching hands that brush, of desire that explodes into the ether, I realize that I would like to capture it—that undefinable, uncomfortable magic—but capturing it isn’t possible.