Friday Night

With her last two features, 1999's Beau Travail and 2001's Trouble Every Day, French director Claire Denis has worked toward a seductive, dreamlike style that eschews dialogue for vibrant textures and rhythms, telling stories in ellipses instead of words. A masterpiece in miniature, Denis' Friday Night concerns nothing more or less substantial than a romantic liaison between two Parisian strangers, yet its visual purity and simplicity give it a special enchantment, like Before Sunrise without all the chatter. Deliberately minor in scale, the film unfolds like a great short story, coloring meticulous flecks of detail within limited parameters, with no ambition beyond capturing an especially bracing moment in time. The magical hours between dusk and dawn represent a brief transitional window for Valérie Lemercier, who's due to move in with her boyfriend the next morning and heads out into the Paris night after packing her last box. Denis and her co-screenwriter Emmanuèle Bernheim (on whose novel the film is based) don't suggest any trouble in paradise, but with Lemercier ready to embark on the next (and perhaps permanent) phase in her life, she seizes her last breath of freedom. While en route to a dinner party with friends, she gets snarled in the massive traffic jam caused by a public transport strike, which Denis shoots as an oppressive cacophony of suffocating spaces and blaring horns, like the city reflecting her agitated nerves. When handsome stranger Vincent Lindon taps on her window and asks for a lift, Lemercier finds his presence instantly calming and yet also exhilarating, especially when he takes the wheel and sends them whooshing ecstatically into the night. Neither one talks about the past or future–or much of anything, for that matter–but their brief connection is surprisingly warm and tender, less a tawdry one-night stand than a bittersweet romance that quietly ebbs like the tide. With a wispy soufflé for a script, Denis relies on her regular collaborators to sustain a rapturous mood entirely from sound and image, including remarkably intuitive and artful cinematography by Agnès Godard and a charming original score by Tindersticks frontman Dickon Hinchcliffe. Seasoned with amusing bits of fantasy, like a pizza topping that briefly curls into a smile, Friday Night captures the city at its most inviting, alive with the feeling that wonderful things can happen to ordinary people. Over a perfectly judged 90 minutes, this secret and transient affair materializes without consequence, moral or otherwise, and Denis makes it a constant pleasure to be privy to it.

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