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Vendredi soir (Friday Night)

Posted by martinteller on March 27, 2014

Laure (Valérie Lemercier) is moving out of her apartment.  From what we can gather, she’s planning to move in with her lover Francois.  But first she has a dinner date with friends to attend.  In her car full of boxes, she finds herself inching along through a hellish traffic jam, caused by a transportation strike.  The radio announcer cheerily advises drivers to pick up hitchhikers.  When a stranger named Jean (Vincent Lindon) comes knocking on her window, she lets him in.  Soon she finds herself cancelling her dinner plans and looking for a hotel….

This is my fifth film by Claire Denis.  The other four were all mixed experiences… never poor, but never great.  From the repetitiveness of Beau Travail to the frustrations of The Intruder, there was always something getting in the way of my full enjoyment of her unique films.  Not so in this case.  One-night stands in films are usually a difficult pill for me to swallow.  Perhaps it’s just envy that such things never happen to me, but the trope of two strangers (or near-strangers) suddenly falling into bed tends to rub me the wrong way.  Especially when there is some sort of infidelity implied.  But Denis makes it go down so easy.

And she accomplishes this by painting Laure’s adventure in impressionistic strokes.  Throughout the film we are treated to brief, fleeting glimpses… fragments of experiences.  It becomes a dreamlike fantasy (even with bits of sudden, playful animation and imagined scenarios), not about “romance” but about passion.  She creates a space that represents this oasis of freedom for Laure: a transitional moment between life situations, the traffic jam giving Laure a little time to breathe and explore, to take in her surroundings.  There is no attempt to legitimize the “relationship” between her and Jean.  It is a purely sensual attraction, deeply felt by the viewer through Denis’s skillful sense of rhythm and mood.  And the sex, although not graphic (a few quick glimpses of bare breasts are as pornographic as it gets), is really hot.  I’m rarely turned on by onscreen sex, but to put it in crass terms, this movie made me want to fuck.  Hands caressing feet, passionate embraces under the covers… even a brief pan of the bed before the protagonists get down to business is loaded with sensual promises.  And the music by the Tindersticks is really fantastic at establishing atmosphere as well.

Traffic jams have played roles in films before.  As biting political commentary in Godard’s Weekend or witty social commentary in Tati’s Playtime… not to mention the hilarious dystopia of Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor.  As a catalyst for misanthropic rage in Falling Down.  Denis uses traffic as a space that opens up new freedoms, where the frustration seems to give way to transformation and possibility.  A respite in the hectic timeline that spans one uncertain situation to the next.  A captivating and in some ways magical piece of work.  Rating: Very Good (88)


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