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A Pair in Paris

'Friday Night' is Claire Denis' ode to the one-night stand

By Richard von Busack

YOU KNOW the trick of summing up a movie in a few words. Director Claire Denis describes her picture Friday Night as "cold outside, warm inside." This perfect little film contrasts Paris when it shivers with the temporary warmth generated by a quick, quiet and candid affair between a man and a woman. But Emmanuèle Bernheim, author of the source novel, comments that her book "lacks the alibi of sentiment." This story's also cold outside, yet warm inside.

The big winter transit strike of 1995 caused Parisians to work together, for a change. They even started some impromptu ride-sharing programs. A woman in her 30s, Laure (Valérie Lemercier), doesn't anticipate the paralyzed crosstown weekend traffic. She's on her way to a Friday-night duty dinner with her friend Marie (Hélène de Saint-Pere). Marie has had a baby recently, and Laure knows that the infant will dominate the evening. Becoming sleepy and dreamy from the carbon monoxide, Laure's in a suggestible mood. The DJ on the car radio comments that she gave a ride to a stranger once, "and it was fun." So Laure lets a nameless man (Vincent Lindon) into her car to give him a lift.

In the next 40 or so minutes, we realize what lambent elsewhereness exists in a car at night. The Dean Martin version of the song "Two Sleepy People" on the radio reflects how much the driver and the rider are apart from the world, even in a traffic jam. Early on, we see that Laure is moving out of her apartment first thing Saturday morning. She's moving in with another man who we never meet. She regrets parting with clothes and books she won't have room for and realizes she'll never see the view from her window again. Because of this--or maybe, just because--she's drawn to the stranger.

They end up at an ordinary hotel in a neighborhood neither really knows. The hotel is empty despite a strike discount, and there's a late-night pizza place not far away. The two fall into a one-night stand, urgent and yet intimate enough that Laure can joke about the rubbery smell of a condom. Denis handles this interlude so deftly that you think, "Only women should direct sex scenes from here on in." Denis doesn't sugar up the animality, the grappling part of the act. At the same time, you're not seeing more than you'd rather, and that's the way Friday Night is--logical but scintillating. It's not dumb erotica, and love has nothing to do with it.

Denis' film does for Paris what films like The Big Clock and After Hours did for New York, or Before Sunrise did for Vienna. I'd commend it to people wondering why there are so few good movies about San Francisco. The all-nighter film could be one good way to evoke that slippery city. Only after dark do the different tribes really meet with one another. There's enough solitude to pick up, on the midnight air, the scent of all those unknowable lives. And the reason why people move to cities in the first place is to inhale all of that strangeness.


Friday Night (Unrated; 90 min.), directed by Claire Denis, written by Emmanuèle Bernheim, photographed by Agnès Godard and starring Valérie Lemercier and Vincent Lindon, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.


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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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