By Jeffrey M. Anderson
The most perfect love sometimes comes in dreams. The act of planninga date can be more perfect than actually going on a date, and where elsecan one realize a secret crush, or hook up with a total stranger?
Claire Denis' Friday Night (Vendredi soir) may be just a dream or it may be real life; it never specifies. But the romance is so tender, so shy, so lovely, that it has a dreamlike quality to it.
Arriving in Bay Area theaters via the San Francisco International Film Festival, Friday Night is one of the year's best films so far. In it, Laure (Val�rie Lemercier) finishes packing up her apartment and sets off to move in with her boyfriend. But it's Friday night and the traffic in Paris has come to a crunching standstill.
Fortunately, the even-tempered French handle the situation much better than we Americans would, and the drivers calmly wait in their cars. Laure imagines the letters on one car's trunk doing a little dance. The freezing weather outside creates fog on the windshields.
A radio DJ occasionally coos updates ("if you were headed to dinner, it's going to get cold"), and suggests that drivers let passerby get in out of the cold. Laure lets a shaggy-looking fellow, Jean (Vincent Lindon, also in the recent Chaos) into her car.
Friday Night has very little dialogue, but anyone can see how attracted these two are to each other. Denis never lets us in on exactly what Laure is thinking. She's on the verge of a new phase of her life and perhaps this is just a rest stop, something that happens in-between chapters of her life.
Over the course of the rest of the film, they have dinner and check into a hotel for a one-night stand. None of this is in the least vulgar or sleazy.
As with her great Beau Travail, Denis is interested in movements and gestures. When the couple holds hands, they do it in such a tentative, tender way that tingles radiate out from the screen. Their nuzzling and lovemaking is equally beautiful -- emphasized by the fact that neither actor is particularly good-looking. This is a normal romance that really could happen to anyone and not just Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan.
Likewise, the traffic jam itself is some kind of poem of movement and non-movement. It conjures up images of the cinema's other great traffic jams, from Fellini's 8 1/2 to Godard's Weekend to Schumacher's Falling Down to Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor. But rather than referencing them, it joins them as their equal.
Denis continually references the dreamlike non-reality of the situation, which makes it feel more private and personal. Laure fantasizes about bringing Jean to her dinner party and imagines him going into the restaurant's bathroom with a particularly attractive female diner. We also witness the anchovies on a pizza smile at us.
Most moviegoers -- especially Americans -- tend to resist dreamlike filmmaking (as witness the hostile reaction to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut a few years ago). We're trained that if something can't happen in reality that it shouldn't happen in the movies, which is terribly sad and closed-minded.
Maybe it's the personal nature of dream movies that put people off -- or perhaps the failure to accurately replicate the nature of dreams. Friday Night should not cause any such problems. It's as smooth and effortless as falling asleep, and when it's over you might leave the theater with a sweet, secret little shiver all to yourself.
DVD Details: The beautiful DVD features a commentary track by Denis and critic Kent Jones, plus a trailer gallery and other stuff.