Heavy Traffic

In Friday Night, Claire Denis gets all symbolic about gridlock and stuff

Sep 3, 2003 at 4:00 am
To sum up the plot of Friday Night is just about the easiest thing in the world. A woman gets caught in bad traffic, picks up a stranger, goes to a motel with him, has sex, feels vaguely uncertain about it and goes home. That is pretty much the entirety of what happens. No one familiar with Claire Denis goes to her movies for the plots -- in the case of her last one, Trouble Every Day, I'm still having trouble figuring out exactly what was going on ('twas fun to look at, though). Denis aspires to be a visual poet, telling stories that in many cases, and this one in particular, could just as easily be told through a series of still photographs. Those looking for an adrenaline rush need not apply. Even fans of the slice of French cinema that arrives on these shores may find themselves losing patience with Friday Night. But for those who can groove to its zen-like charm, the viewing experience offers a refreshing alternative to everything else on the screen right now.

The idea that daily bumper-to-bumper commutes could be filmed in a meditative, artsy fashion may simply not compute, the odd R.E.M. video notwithstanding. Yet for about 45 minutes, that's what we're in for here. Laure (Valérie Lemercier) is packing up all the stuff in her apartment, preparing to move in with an unseen boyfriend named François. Her car's loaded with stuff to give to charity and has a "For Sale" sign in the back window, though apparently she's neither going to a charity drop-off nor to François' place, but out to a friend's for dinner. On the car radio, we hear that there's a transportation strike in progress that has brought traffic to a near-complete standstill. A gleefully perky newscaster periodically chimes in with amusingly unhelpful asides like "If you've been invited to dinner, it's going to get cold." Flashes of a barren Metro station dissolve in and out just so we get the point. Rows of onlookers at abandoned bus stations stand in rows staring at the people trapped in holding patterns on the crowded streets.

Following the advice of a radio host, Laure offers a ride to a pedestrian, who tells her he'd rather walk, as it would be quicker. It's his loss, because the next guy she offers a ride, Jean (Vincent Lindon), does get in the car, and he gets more than one kind of ride out of the deal, if ya know what I'm sayin'. But not until we've watched more traffic, imagined the possibility of Jean tagging along to dinner (where his smoking would apparently upset a crying baby -- this being a French film, the director's sympathy is clearly with the smoker) and experienced a drive backwards shot on extra-grainy stock.

Forward we go then, to a near-empty motel and some mostly clothed intercourse, during which Denis favors the filming of elbows and knees rather than the more obvious body parts.

There are one or two touches of magical realism -- a CG-animated number on a car's back bumper, for instance, and a lampshade flying into perfect position atop its frame -- which clue us in to the sense of wonder and discovery within the mundane that Denis is attempting to capture. Not everyone will think she has captured it or care that she was even trying in the first place, but if you go with the ebb and flow, Friday Night can be as intoxicating as a good cocktail.