Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Claire Denis

Talk of the Town

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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She's made movies about serial killers, cockfighters and vampires as well as poetic and quasi-autobiographical films about her childhood in Africa. Now French filmmaker Claire Denis has made probably her most complicated and demanding film -- about two strangers and their romantic night together.

Friday Night takes place over one chilly night in Paris during a massive traffic jam. Laure (Valérie Lemercier) has just moved out of her apartment and is preparing to move in with her boyfriend when she finds herself stuck in the gridlock. Rather than panic or complain, these drivers go with the flow and the atmosphere of quiet and stillness becomes central.

After awhile, Laure allows a total stranger Jean (Vincent Lindon) to join her in the warmth of her car. Before long, they eat dinner together at an Italian restaurant and check into a hotel for passionate, shy, tentative sex.

The film contains very little dialogue and focuses so heavily on a dreamlike mood that it comes as a surprise to find that it's adapted -- very faithfully -- from a novel.

"I re-read [Faulkner's] Absalom, Absalom! and I felt how much he said by describing the smell of the flowers, the dampness of the grass. Things like that, it creates something," Denis says during a recent trip to San Francisco -- during which she introduced her new film at the International Film Festival. Friday Night opens Friday at the Lumiere.

"Dialogue is always the first move to explain things," she continues. "After a while you realize you could make it without. For me, the best dialogue is like a noise between two people, meaningless. For example, the man says, 'would you like a cigarette?' She says, 'no I stopped smoking but please do smoke.' For me this is important because people say things and think other things."

Still, Denis does not dismiss dialogue-oriented storytellers like Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges. "I do like directors who have wit. I don't want to exclude people who don't do it my way."

The 55 year-old director was born the daughter of a civil servant and lived in Africa before moving to France at age 14. She began working as an assistant director on a series of highly acclaimed films: Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie, Costa-Gavras's Hanna K.; Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire and Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law. She also worked for the French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette on an unfinished film and even directed a documentary about him.

In 1988 she wrote and directed her acclaimed feature debut Chocolat, about a French woman revisiting her childhood in Africa. From there Denis made a series of stylish, challenging films culminating with 1999's internationally acclaimed masterpiece Beau Travail -- also set in Africa.

Though her most recent film Trouble Every Day met with mixed reviews, Friday Night is the equal of Beau Travail. It's another masterpiece good enough to catapult Denis back into the spotlight again.

Part of Friday Night's success rests on its talented lead actors. Lindon is already a veteran performer, best known for Betty Blue, La Haine, The School of Flesh and Chaos. But Lemercier was an unusual choice. She's known as a comedian and has a kind of ordinary beauty -- not the Julia Roberts-type one would usually find in a romantic film.

"She was afraid," Denis says. "She's very strong and has no inhibition on stage, but she's a very shy woman. She thought she was too ugly. She thought that for a part like that I needed a beautiful actress. I told her that she was far from being ugly. We've known each other for years and she trusts me."

The writer Emmanuèle Bernheim, who wrote the novel and the screenplay -- in addition to the screenplays for Francois Ozon's Under the Sand and Swimming Pool -- also trusts Denis. According to Denis the two of them once discussed what happens to the couple once Friday Night ends.

"I told her that one day I would write a sequel, Saturday Morning," Denis says. "And she told me that she thought the book should stop there, but that it could be right at the beginning of another story. I don't know yet. I have to figure it out."

April 28, 2003

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