Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Surely the most romantic movie about cheating ever made

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The adultery-themed comedy The Other Woman has us thinking back on other films about infidelity.


Friday Night (2002)

Most movies about infidelity insist, often with melodramatic urgency, that cheaters only cheat themselves. To step out on your lover is to court certain disaster, these films inevitably conclude; no affair can end well for anyone involved, especially the guilty party. With Friday Night, the great French director Claire Denis begs respectfully to differ, adding that particular cinematic trend to the long list of other ones she’s bucked. Her film, a wisp of a romance set against the bright lights of the City Of Lights, doesn’t just refuse to condemn its heroine for her spontaneous act of unfaithfulness. It also implicitly suggests that a final fling—one last one night stand—may be exactly what the character needs to fully commit to her current relationship. If that sounds like cheaters’ logic, maybe it is. But Denis isn’t out to challenge the virtues of monogamy, just to acknowledge, without judgment, that even those who have “settled down” still feel the pull of instant attraction.

Though based on a novel by Emmanuèle Bernheim (who also wrote the frequently wordless screenplay), Friday Night feels more like a short story or even a poem. On the night before she moves into a new apartment with her boyfriend, Laure (Valérie Lemercier) goes to meet friends for dinner, gets stuck in a traffic jam, and ends up going home with the handsome stranger, Jean (Vincent Lindon), she encounters in passing. Denis, as usual, cuts out most traces of exposition; characters reveal themselves through glances and gestures instead of dialogue. Connecting on a purely physical, sexual, and maybe innate emotional level, Laure and Jean are simply drawn to each other, and there’s never any suggestion that their tryst will continue beyond the timeframe established by the title. Theirs is an ephemeral passion, consummated in bed and then put to bed.

Compared to many of Denis’ other films, Friday Night is “slight”—an evening of unexpected connection condensed into 90 poetic minutes. But compared to the lion’s share of big-screen romances, it’s also something of a miracle. Proving again that her lyrical style can be applied to just about any genre, Denis gorgeously evokes the desire of her characters, her camera lovingly lingering on the eyes, the hands, and the artfully exposed flesh of the actors. She also uses location to speak volumes about Laure, a woman more restless than unhappy: Her apartment, crowded with moving boxes, becomes a symbol of her impending domestic situation. That the film ends with a vision of joyful movement, its protagonist liberated by a last indulgence, suggests that Denis believes in letting the heart lead the way. Whether she’s eliding the consequences of doing so is another question entirely.

Availability: The DVD of Friday Night is out of print, but can still be obtained through Netflix.