Dir: Claire Denis. France. 2002. 88mins.
A man and a woman, complete strangers, meet by chance in Paris and, after the briefest of verbal exchanges, end up having long, passionate sex. But don't be fooled: Friday Night (Vendredi Soir) is as much about traffic jams and unfamiliar neighbourhoods as it is about sex. Claire Denis' latest is a challenging exercise that relies totally on its attractive, original visual style and soundtrack, smart editing and the electric attraction between the two characters to justify its claim to be anything other than an overstretched short. Denis is a talented filmmaker with a deft feel for mood-weaving, and the experiment almost comes off; but not quite. Instead the film is too linear, too devoid of surprises beyond the leap into the romantic unknown and too long, to stave off eventual yawns and watch-glancing. As such, Friday Night is unlikely to rise above a short to medium run in France, where Bac Film releases it on Sept 10, with a limited airing in European territories with healthy arthouse circuits. The film premiered in competition at Venice.
We first see Laure (Valerie Lemercier), a young Parisian woman of unspecified profession, as she is taping up cardboard boxes in the final stages of moving house. She's leaving her single-girl flat and moving in with her boyfriend, who lives across the other side of the city. But Paris is paralysed by a public transport strike, and what should have been a relatively straightforward journey turns into an interminable gridlock. Laure is in limbo between two houses and two phases of her life; and the rite of passage takes place in her car, which becomes a charmed space, isolated from the chaos outside. Reminded by a radio announcer to help stranded pedestrians by offering lifts, Laure invites Jean (Vincent Lindon) into her car.
The chemistry between the two leads is good, the growing attraction and Laure's surprise at her own desires and hesitation before the leap all well conveyed. Where the film really begins to drag is when the two finally get down to business: although the sex is touchingly affectionate (the film is about loving and leaving, not anonymous lust), it's not enough to get us through the half hour that remains. And while the choice of two ordinary-looking actors with ordinary-looking bodies works to reinforce the film's "this-could-happen-to-you" message, it does little to enhance the audience's pleasure once they get their kit off.
Denis is a talented filmmaker with a deft feel for mood-weaving, and the experiment almost comes off; but not quite. Instead the film is too linear, too devoid of surprises beyond the leap into the romantic unknown and too long, to stave off eventual yawns and watch-glancing.
Both the director and her cinematographer, Agnes Godard (Friday Night is that very rare beast, a film whose top technical posts are filled by women) create an engaging visual style, a sort of collage that mediates Laure's dreamy limbo. It's as if Godard can't unscrew the macro lens from her camera: faces, signs, lights, hands, dashboard details are shot in grainy, yellow-lit close-up. Mostly it works, coming across as a more Parisian, chi-chi take on the montage style of Godfrey Regio (another presence at this year's Venice festival) - but it can also grate. Odd faces looking out blankly from car windows in a traffic jam is something Fellini did so much more effectively in Roma.
Prod cos: Arena Films, France 2 Cinema
Fr dist: Bac Film
Int'l sales: Pathe International
Prod: Bruno Pesery
Scr: Emanuele Bernheim, Claire Denis, based on the novel by Bernheim
Cinematography: Agnes Godard
Prod des: Katia Wyszkop
Ed: Nelly Quettier
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Main cast: Valerie Lemercier, Vincent Lindon