“Friday Night” isn’t so much about a romantic encounter or a chance fling as it is about the emotional liberation of a lost, unhappy young woman. In co-writer/director Claire Denis’ words, Laure (played serenely by Valerie Lemercier) is “between two worlds.” Indeed, Laure is at a critical juncture in her life. When Denis’ movie opens, we find her packing up her Parisian apartment quietly, methodically, like a dutiful prisoner preparing to head off to her new cell. That new cell is her boyfriend’s apartment into which, come morning, she plans to relocate.
The movie’s opening scenes, so dreamily quiet, deliberate, meditative, lingering over the subtle sounds, rhythms and textures of Laure’s surroundings, prepare us for a most rewarding cinematic journey. That journey begins in Laure’s car as she sets out for dinner at a friend’s. She finds her way choked with traffic due, no surprise here, by a Parisian transit strike. Inching along, Laure finds comfort in her last, quiet night of “freedom” before offering a ride to Jean (Vincent Lindon), a roguishly handsome man stranded for lack of public transport. The two strike up a pleasant rapport, but, in Jean, Laure finds all that she desires in herself. An unspoken, simmering attraction develops amidst nothing more than polite exchanges and the dull groan of traffic.
Writers Denis and Emmanuele Bernheim (drawing from her novel) reject the obligatory patter and backstory revelations that just-met romantic partners are saddled with, opting for a riskier, purely cinematic approach. Their script, and Agnes Godard’s intimate camerawork, finds its greatest dramatic resource not in effusive dialogue or action—there’s surprisingly little of either in the movie—but from the telling gesture, glance and look. The gentle expressiveness in the leads’ performances lends “Friday Night” its graceful, unforced appeal. When passions do break through, Denis’ camera, rather than gaze on voyeuristically, clings lovingly to their bodies, to whispers, scents and contours. The actors too opt for a refreshingly muted approach, erotic without being bump-and-grind obvious.
As delicately as night turns to day, Denis depicts Laure’s transformation, crafting in the process a lovely tone poem about a woman’s emerging self-assurance. The grace note of “Friday Night’s” final shot is something only a filmmaker of Denis’ skill and humanism could have managed, inviting us to speculate longingly about Laure’s future, surprising us with how much we’ve actually come to care.
Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis, Emmanuele Bernheim
Cast: Valerie Lemercier, Vincent Lindon, Helene de Saint-Pere