Friday Night (Vendredi Soir) Review
In Claire Denis’ latest film, Friday Night (Vendredi Soir), it seems like not much happens, but with the barest outline of a plot, the merest sketch of dialogue and the simplest of premises – boy meets girl – Denis has created a film that is as rich and full an experience as anything seen in the cinema in recent years.
The story, as I’ve suggested, is straightforward. Laure (Valérie Lemercier) is about to move apartment to live with her boyfriend and has just packed-up all her belongings into cardboard boxes, ready for the removal men to collect the following morning. She goes out in her car to a dinner party with friends but never arrives. A transport strike has brought the streets of Paris to a standstill and she gets stuck in the traffic. It’s a cold day, so when a stranger approaches the car and invites himself in for a lift, she feels it is her duty to help. Few words are exchanged – enough to know that the stranger is called Jean (Vincent Lindon) and that there is an inexplicable attraction between them. They spend the evening in a traffic jam, in a restaurant and then retire to a hotel together.
Excuse me for giving away almost all of the plot as this is practically all there is to say about the story – however this is not a film where the plot is the most essential element. The real meat of the film is elsewhere – it’s in all the little, seemingly random and meaningless details that punctuate the evening. Surprisingly, although the film is heavily dependant on looks and actions, the film also manages to avoid familiar body language, glances and gestures. The unspoken exchanges are there, but they are not shown in the conventional way a couple in the movies let each other know of their mutual attraction. Laure’s motivations and feelings are hinted at, but never explained or made obvious. Why does she feel attracted to this man she has hardly spoken to? Why did she let him into her car? Why does she choose this moment, just as she is committed to moving in with her boyfriend, to abandon herself to a fling? The answers are there – in abstract moments of reverie and flights of imagination, in magical flickers of light and shadow in moments between dreaming and waking. Perhaps the situation she finds herself in, having packed up her belongings and finding herself on the brink of a new life, gives her the nerve to be spontaneous and unpredictable, without perhaps even knowing why herself.
Denis, with her regular cinematographer Agnès Godard, does wonders with such a slight storyline and is completely open to the possibilities of the mise en scène, constantly looking outside of the frame for little details. The action almost appears to be in real-time, deliberating over an evening where something special and inexplicable is happening and where every detail and word that contributes to the significance of the evening is captured and savoured. When the couple get back to the hotel, it feels like the camera practically gets into bed with them, but there is nothing explicit about the sex scenes. Strangely, while this is the culmination of the evening the couple spend together, it is no more significant than anything else that has led up to it, perhaps even less so since the awareness that the moment is about to end is also implicit within the sexual act. That is the level this film works on – creating an atmosphere built on the anticipation of the unknown with the in-built melancholy of the knowledge that it is something brief, ephemeral and never to be repeated.
Many people however will not find the evening or the film the slightest bit interesting or worthy of such treatment. This is certainly not a film for everyone. Personally, I think that Denis has achieved here what she has been close to in her last couple of films. I didn’t think either the one-note characters or the stories of either Beau Travail or Trouble Every Day to be worthy of the attention to detail and mood that the filmmakers had graced them with. Here in Friday Evening everything feels right. The characters have been stripped down to the most basic level and their interaction to the most perfunctory of words and gestures, perfectly attuned to the situation they are in and to reality as we know it, to the randomness of encounter and the exciting myriad of possibilities it opens up.
The video quality is extremely hard to judge. Godard and Denis have chosen a very muted palette – warm and intimate, but never bright and detailed. The film takes place entirely at night, with only one or two more brightly lit interiors. Occasionally the film seems to lose depth and contrast, appearing flat and washed out, but this is probably more a stylistic device to capture atmosphere, memory and mood. There is barely a dust mark or scratch on the print, so the best I can say is that the image presented here suits the film very well and appears to be without faults.
The Wellspring Region 0 release comes with both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, both of which are equally fine. The soundtrack, with very little dialogue, relies heavily on the musical score. No Tindersticks soundtrack for this Claire Denis film, but the band’s violinist, arranger and sometime vocalist, Dickon Hinchcliffe, provides a superb score for the film, filling in mood between Jeff Mills, Benjamin Britten and Dmitry Shostakovich. The score is slightly more dynamic than a pure Tindersticks score would normally be – playful at the right moments, tender at others, it accompanies the film exceptionally well.
The subtitles are fine – yellow font, optional and they translate the few lines of dialogue in the film well. A little too well, as Denis points out in her commentary some faintly spoken dialogue that is not meant to be heard or translated.
There is an excellent commentary from Claire Denis, in English, in conversation with Kent Jones from the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. Denis is much more interesting here than in her commentary track with Agnès Godard on Trouble Every Day which was almost entirely about the camera shots. It’s to the director’s credit however that everything she explains here is entirely clear already from watching the film. There is not much more to add – it’s all there in the film. She makes one interesting comment about ‘One From The Heart’ being an influence on the film, which I can see entirely.
Filmographies are included for Denis, Lemercier and Lindon.
A good theatrical trailer, subtitled – presented at 1.85:1 letterbox.
Trailers for other Wellspring releases – Les Destinées Sentimentals, Madame Satã, Ran, Russian Ark, Under The Sand and Yi-Yi – an impressive catalogue.
Web links are provided to the official US and French Friday Night sites, some on-line interviews with the director and a link to the Wellspring homepage.
Friday Night might seem slight and inconsequential and therefore not appeal to everyone, but I think it achieves brilliantly what it sets out to do – to capture the everyday magic of attraction and all the moods, emotions and impressions that go along with it. While we have been waiting for a French DVD release for Vendredi Soir, Wellspring have come along with strong Region-free release which captures the qualities of the film and includes an excellent director’s commentary in English, so this United States release has to be recommended.