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A 'Friday Night' encounter in Paris

Claire Denis' new film turns a chance meeting into a highly charged study of mood and emotions. It's a sensual, exceptionally cinematic piece.

August 29, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

We all meet as strangers, starting from scratch and warily filling in blanks. But what if mutual erotic attraction was so powerful it compelled immediate action? And what if circumstances made that response almost imperative for one night and one night only?

That, in general outline, is the thesis behind Claire Denis' exquisite "Friday Night," but describing it that way does not even hint at either the emotional resonance or the visual qualities that make this French film such a hypnotic experience.

For "Friday Night" is a beautifully made meditation on the themes of emotion, mood and state of mind. Detailing a Parisian romantic encounter from the woman's point of view, "Friday" may sound like a fantasy but it doesn't play that way because those emotions are so realistically displayed and the tone of intimacy is so exactly duplicated.

Even when her subject matter has not been classically romantic, director and co-writer Denis (1988's "Chocolat," "Beau Travail") has been a fluid, seductive filmmaker in command of a remarkably sensual, exceptionally cinematic style.

Here, making the best use of frequent collaborator Agnes Godard's intimate cinematography, she creates moments in time so languidly beautiful we're untroubled at those junctures when nothing specific seems to be happening.

Under their joint guidance, "Friday Night" turns out to be especially good at displaying the mysteries of Paris at night, of caressing the city so that even familiar romantic images like rooftops and shop windows come out involving and shots of smoke drifting out of car windows become both evocative and beautiful.

Helping this mood is the haunting music of Dickon Hinchliffe, whose group Tindersticks composed the score for two of Denis' previous films and whose delicate sounds bring us deeper into the emotion of the moment with careful grace and clarity.

*

Two-character drama

Essential for what is basically a two-character drama, "Friday Night" has also been superbly cast. It's not just that Valerie Lemercier and Vincent Lindon, excellent French actors who are not that well-known in this country, look like they could belong together, they are attractive without being drop-dead gorgeous in a way that would have detracted from the story's thrust.

One of the conceits of co-screenwriter Emmanuele Bernheim (who worked with Francois Ozon on the Charlotte Rampling-starring "Under the Sand" and whose novel is this film's source material) that this kind of passionate situation is within the reach of everyone, not just the glamour crowd.

This particular Friday night is dominated by a massive transit strike, filling Paris' streets with wall-to-wall traffic. "The city is choking, everyone is exhausted," a smooth disc jockey says on the radio, suggesting that drivers be charitable and open their doors to stranded pedestrians.

Laure (Lemercier) is initially oblivious to all of this. In the last stages of packing before the movers come Saturday morning to relocate her to her boyfriend's apartment, she's taking down curtains, throwing away lampshades and trying to fit her entire life into large cardboard boxes.

This is for Laure, we come to see, the loosest of loose-end moments, a time when she is in effect poised on the edge of an emotional diving board before plunging headfirst into her new life. "Fragile," the word she writes on many of her cartons, could describe her mental state as well.

*

A dance of intimacy

Laure confronts the traffic and hears the radio announcer's suggestion when she heads out in her car to dinner at a friend's house. The idea appeals to her in theory, and even more so in practice when Jean (Lindon) asks her permission and joins her in her gridlocked car.

With an immediately noticeable air of casual yet commanding masculinity, Jean is rugged in an urban, Bruce Springsteen way. He's calm yet enigmatic, revealing nothing more than his name and an indifference to obvious purpose.

Asked where he wants to go, he typically answers, "Leave me where you want." And though Jean is an involving character, the drama in "Friday Night" is in the sharing of Laure's emotional states.

As the two of them come to realize the mutuality of their attraction and enter into an unspoken dance of intimacy, it is the gift of Lemercier's performance that we can see her worrying and thinking, shifting possibilities from moment to moment.

As this pair gradually become captive to the need to have each other, the closeness of Godard's camerawork and Denis' concern with the delicate, tactile nature of intimacy, the importance of silence as well as words, bring us deeper and deeper into their relationship. "Friday Night" is emotion-centered filmmaking at its best, demanding as well as rewarding.

*

'Friday Night'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Sexual activity

Valerie Lemercier...Laure

Vincent Lindon...Jean

An Arena Films, France 2 Cinema production, in association with France Television Images, Canal +, Centre National de Cinematographie, released by Wellspring Media. Director Claire Denis. Producer Bruno Pesery. Screenplay Claire Denis, Emmanuele Bernheim. Cinematographer Agnes Godard. Editor Nelly Quettier. Costumes Judy Shrewsbury, Catherine Leterrier. Music Dickon Hinchliffe. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In French with English subtitles.

Exclusively at the Landmark Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330; and Edwards Park Place 10, 3031 Michelson Drive, Irvine, (949) 440-0880.

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