The sun goes down, and the city lights of Paris slowly rise. The romantic melancholy of a girl's adventure story finds a haunting backdrop in Claire Denis's Friday Night. This follow-up to the ultraviolent vampire horror show Trouble Every Day feels like a contemporary fable, retaining the signature Denis touches of expressionistic images and aching sensuality. Sweet, shy Laure (Valérie Lemercier) is packing up the apartment on her final evening before moving in with her lover. Laure's the very portrait of ambivalence, a sharp twist on the male fear of commitment.
That Laure won't throw away her sexy red dress (saying, "I'll keep you," in one of her affectionate throwaway lines to household objects, clothing, and her beaten-up but friendly car) says she has some vitality in her yet, and hasn't quite finished exploring life's spontaneous opportunities. Going out for the night wearing a trés chic black dress, Laure gets stuck in a massive traffic jam, allowing regular Denis cinematographer Agnes Godard to rove between vehicles picking up details of Parisian life through rain-speckled car windows illuminated and obscured by neon, headlights, and shadows.
Not taking any cues from Jean-Luc Godard's apocalyptic Weekend, Denis handles the patience and boredom of a traffic jam with even handed temperance. As wheels revolve on the wet pavement and cars inch around each other, it's a dance scored to Dickon Hinchcliffe's lush, obsessively angelic score. Like our stand-in Laure, we're comfortably swept into tones of floating, swooning, and awakening.
As the city colors blur into beautiful abstractions, Laure impulsively allows a stranded commuter to ride with her. Robust, quietly assured Jean (Vincent Lindon) becomes her unshaven, average guy version of Prince Charming. She's almost too afraid to continue getting to know this alluring stranger after he gets her away from the traffic using some near-dangerous cab driver instincts. But Friday Night allows her to face those fears, and following the beats of the coffee shop, the hotel room, the restaurant, the sleeping arrangements, and the morning after charts the curiosity, amusement, and desire of consenting adults making the most of their weekend jaunt. Those with a taste for people-watching might identify.
Friday Night feels like a happy dream, taking its time with the hotel room sex scenes and even more with the before and after moods of anticipation and contentment. Denis chooses two actors that possess an everyperson's beauty, not model perfect but attractive the way real people are. With each cigarette Jean smokes and each knowing grin of our heroine Laure, Friday Night endears. It's an inspiring take on the human condition, where everyone's alone and yet they aren't. Denis's characters, key players and bit actors, are brought together in brief encounters during her lingering, spiritual city trek.
At 86 minutes, Friday Night feels slightly padded but never dull. What would have made a brilliant short film clocks in as a charming little featurette. This tone poem, or ode, to grown-up behavior brings out the vibrancy of who we are, and taps into the electricity of what we imagine. Living vicariously through Laure and Jean, it's a heartache and a fantasy that we may have daydreamed. Claire Denis provides a cinematic vision of those fantasies, and Friday Night is slight in the same way fleeting thoughts are--it runs through our imagination quickly, but leaves a pleasing and lasting afterglow.
Reviewed at the 2002 New York Film Festival. Aka Vendredi Soir.
On DVD, Denis offers a commentary with critic Kent Jones -- the questions and answers very roughly translated between French and English.