May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 5, 2005
Friday Night had such a limited theatrical release that a recent DVD release merits discussing it. Well, that and the fact that it simply is a film worth talking about that didn’t get talked about very much. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Emmanuele Bernheim (who also has written the recent scriptsSwimming Pool and Under the Sand for Ozon), this may be Claire Denis’ most raw and compelling cinematic vision to date. Most of her films today, most notably Nennete et Boni and Beau Travail, have been explicit moral tales. It is strange to see critics responding to Friday Night as something different.
There are very few directors that take us to the edge of what film can do and still leave us with something worthwhile. Such attempts to push the boundaries of film either result in worthwhile experiments or clumsy misfires. Rarely do they result in masterpieces. In this light, Friday Night is like Lynch’s Wild at Heart or Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. It is a radical departure from traditional cinema that ends up taking us somewhere well worth going.
All Denis does is tell the story of a woman caught in the worst traffic Paris has ever seen. Laure has packed up her apartment and is on her way to move in with her new boyfriend. On the way the radio instructs drivers to be kind to those who are having to walk because their cars are stuck somewhere and try to share a ride with someone. So she picks up a handsome stranger, their otherwise dull night results in a delicate passionate frenzy, and she continues on her way the next morning. In terms of storyline, this is all pretty typical stuff to viewers familiar with French film. But it is the way Denis tells this simple story that poetic divergences start to emerge. The film is basically a monotone catalog of nocturnal urban perceptions; she simply creates a nightscape that her characters get lost in together. There may be a few bits of dialogue over the course of the entire film, but words are a tangent to the subjective investigation of Laure’s fragility and insecurity.
At times the film slips into rote manipulation of its elements. A number will dance from left to right across a license plate and drop into place. Laure will leave her car to make a phone call and her car will disappear. Frantic, the viewer is as dislocated as Laure from her space of security and comfort until the visual and emotional balance of the film is restored. And as the film grows in intensity we come to find that Denis has been doing little more than reproducing the set of emotions that accompany the spur of the moment romance, she describes in images the set of feelings that attends Laure’s climactic moment of intimacy. Denis is all about using film as a medium of emotive exercise, and Friday Night addresses the sanctity of this impulsive moment..
But I say “sanctity” with a major caveat. The film ends on a soul-less affair between two strangers, and the last shot runs into a freeze frame of Laure skipping down the street after leaving her one night stand at the hotel. The intriguing emotional intensity built up by Denis so carefully through this tantalizing visual language apparently ends with the superficiality of a Friends episode.
Good films identify and incarnate a specific set of emotions about something through a consistent visual language. In this film Denis identifies that set of emotions that women encounter when they are in the situation Laure finds herself in. We could easily take Laure in the film and extend her broadly to show that this set of emotions the film expresses on her behalf is merely the extension of a groping need for wholeness in our culture that expresses itself in the superficial romantic moment. Whether we are supposed to judge her choice as “good” or “bad” is hard to say, but it is clear that a legitimate response to this film is a deep sadness at having encountered a character in need of a companionship that she doesn’t seem to be able to find. And Denis brings us into a very personal contact with her.
Or she could be a stand in for all those moments when one encounters a fleeting glimpse of something “right” or “honest” about life in a French film. That moment forces you into complicity with the film, many of which are fraught with disagreeable moral decisions. In a sense, you are committing adultery with film against reality, and you skip on your way out of the theater with nary a moment of moral reprehension. Friday Night, just like the unique genre of film that it is influenced by, has the power to lull the viewer into this sort of listlessness. Whatever is going on in Friday Night it seems to allow for any number of interesting readings. And the film just feels like Paris at night.