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FRIDAY NIGHT (Vendredi soir) (director/writer: Claire Denis; screenwriter: from the book by Emmanuele Bernheim/Emmanuele Bernheim; cinematographer: Agnès Godard; editor: Nelly Quettier; music: Dickon Hinchliffe; cast: Valérie Lemercier (Laure), Vincent Lindon (Jean); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bruno Pesery; Wellspring Media; 2002-France, in French with English subtitles)
“There’s something about Denis’s filmmaking style that is deeply affecting.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

French director Claire Denis’s (“Beau Travail”/”Trouble Every Day”) erotic drama is about a one-night stand between strangers. The problem is that the characters after the big sex scene never reveal anything more about themselves than they did before, so they still remain strangers. They are strangers throughout, and the viewer has to make due with a few base observations here and there while a Paris traffic jam is used as a metaphor for the human condition. Denis allows the intelligent and sensitive viewer enough visual stimulation to draw out the plight of the woman heroine while her male counterpart remains as a mysterious sex object (a reversal of the usual film roles). Though the film is not as transparent as it seems, it is still somewhat of a disappointment when compared to Denis’s much more moving and enlightening Beau Travail. Friday Night is based on the novel by Emmanuele Bernheim, who also co-scripted it with Denis.

Laure (Valerie Lemercier) is exhausted after packing her things in preparation for moving in tomorrow with her lover (he’s never seen throughout). The thirtysomething single woman seems anxious and unsure about the change. Before departing, she leaves some stuff in the hall which is snatched up by a neighbor as being too good to be thrown away (there’s certainly a catchy metaphor in that sentiment). Laure then takes her last bath in these digs and heads to her car. The evening calls for her to have dinner with some friends. But when she starts driving and turns on the car radio, it is learned there is a public transport strike and all of Paris is at a near standstill. Evidently, she was too preoccupied with her own concerns to tune into what was happening outside.

Stuck in the gigantic traffic jam, Laure tries to remain calm and pass the time listening to music. A female announcer on the special radio program about the traffic jam, urges drivers to carpool. Obediently Laure offers a ride to a male pedestrian who turns her down saying it’s faster to walk. Then she spots the handsome Jean (Vincent Lindon) who is walking along undisturbed by the traffic jam. He knocks on her window and asks for a ride. When Jean’s seated Laure asks where he wants to get off and he responds “leave me where you want.”

Jean chain smokes, remains laconic, and nods out with her when there is no traffic movement. Laure snaps out of it and remembers her dinner date with friends and leaves the car with the keys in it to phone. Laure finds the dinner is canceled because of the strike and returns to find her car gone. But after a quick scare that Jean was a thief, it turns out that she only imagined it. Jean has only taken the car out of the main thoroughfare and when she gets in again he drives her away from the congestion by taking the side streets. But Jean frightens her as he speeds off to a more seedy part of town. Laure lets him off and he goes into a cafe. She soon follows and Jean stops off in the rest room to buy condoms. They then leave together and check into a cheap hotel. They have passionate sex. The quiet camera of Agnès Godard catches them in revealing close-up shots. One line of dialogue sticks out, as he says “Your hands smell of rubber.”

For all intensive purposes the film could have ended at that point, but instead it follows them to a midnight pizza meal in a restaurant that is nearly deserted. Another married couple enters and immediately have a loud row, as the woman leaves for the rest room. When Jean also leaves for the rest room, Laure imagines her stud screwing that woman over the sink.

The couple go back to their hotel room and sleep over. The next morning Laure departs, as Jean remains asleep. When she’s out on the street, there’s a big smile across her face.

It’s a minor work, but there’s something about Denis’s film-making style that is deeply affecting. On an emotional level and from a woman’s perspective, Denis shows that the modern gal can lust and have random sex and cheat just like the guys do. The transient relationship is what passes for a love connection in this world of chaos and angry people fighting with each other and impatiently honking their horns. It’s an erotic woman’s fantasy, about meeting a charming, suave and seductive stranger who can excite for the moment and make her not afraid to live again. I guess, that cheating on her lover can be forgiven by the viewer because we never saw him and Laure was confused for the moment about her future path. In its quietude, it leaves more thoughtful questions than answers.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”