The Eyes Have It
Eric Hynes on Friday Night
To me, one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, “We can cover that by a line of dialogue.” Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms. —Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut
What seems like a throwaway, if vivid, image in Claire Denis’s stealth masterpiece Friday Night, actually functions as an uncharacteristically overt symbol. Staring out the car windshield while ensnarled in traffic, Laure (Valerie Lemercier) observes the people and storefronts along the road. The shots begin to blur and her mind drifts to abstraction. Then she fixes on giant neon-blue eyeglasses that jut from a storefront and seem to float in the moving frame. Denis cuts from the spectacles to Laure’s gaze. What every moment of Friday Night implies is here playfully made explicit: look, linger, take it in.
Claire Denis makes films in which everything—every shot, every cut, every expression, every word—has a purpose, yet nothing is forced. She is a master visualist who doesn’t insist on her visions or her mastery. Her films don’t rely on the long, static, objectively composed shots that telegraph serious art cinema. She brings the camera close so that faces and bodies constantly change the picture, asserting subjectivity and challenging us to reframe what we see. Her films are meticulously made yet seem captured rather than constructed. Despite her narrative economy Denis is no minimalist; her films are full of visions, of sounds (though not necessarily of dialogue), of possibility, of meaning, of life. And like life you can let it all pass you by as a series of images and incidents (engrossing or not, memorable or not, beautiful or not). Or you can pay attention.
With Friday Night Denis directs that attention to one woman’s experience over the course of a single night, an interstitial time out of time that would seem to be of little consequence but grows in power partly because of our awareness of and impatience with moments and opportunities squandered. The night, as it turns out, is so sensual and alive it threatens to drift into dream—at once reality and fantasy, in the moment and out of time. Denis shoots for that sweet spot where film form contemplates consciousness, where the advancing present instantly retreats to a remembered past and where what’s literal overlaps with what’s imagined, encouraging both audience and protagonist to be aware of, appreciate, and enjoy the heightened state.
Many films foreground, and take full advantage of, the fact that we like to watch. Rare is the film that considers and satisfies these desires equally. Rarer still is one that doesn’t make us feel guilty for our desires or their satisfaction. Friday Night is aware of guilt as an emotional response but doesn’t make it a moral imperative (the way, say, Haneke’s Funny Games does). It carves out a space where desires and curiosities can be explored without corrective regret. If only for a night we’re set free to touch and feel and immerse ourselves in the moment. And our conduit—our eyes, ears, and hands—is a woman. As are our director, authors (Denis and Emmanuèle Bernheim, adapting her novel), and cinematographer (Agnès Godard). Denis’s film is radical not just for being so casually yet utterly feminist, but also for forwarding a feminine point of view as frankly universal.
From first to last, Friday Night is both elliptical and precise. Denis offers one brief but indelible shot after another, challenging herself and the viewer to subsist on only the most suggestive of compositions or actions. Critics often, and too easily, describe as poetic films with sparse dialogue and a pared visual style, but here the comparison is apt. Rhythm and tone are formal comforts—Friday Night heaves and recedes in time—while words (exchanged here for a cinematographic vocabulary) are carefully chosen and arranged to maximize meaning, mystery, and their own self-contained beauty. To fully appreciate the film’s song of seduction, it’s essential that we follow its beat and try turning its images back into words.
As the sun sets over Paris, and the Eiffel Tower sends its lonely signal out to Montmartre and beyond, Laure packs her belongings into marked boxes. She lies down on a stripped mattress, de-shades a lamp, and tries on old clothes. “I’ll keep you,” she tells a skirt before sealing another box and stuffing dregs of dried goods and bottled beverages into a garbage bag. There’s a sense of finality but also of indeterminacy, of both anticipation and reluctance, of the familiar suddenly gone strange. Dickon Hinchliffe’s romantic score trickles in, and variants on his central theme—new expressions of the same breath—will resurface throughout (Hinchliffe and his band Tindersticks are a perfect match for Denis, all melancholic contradictions and bittersweet textures). Laure bathes, dresses, and heads for the door. Attached to set of keys is a note: “Our place—tomorrow. François.” It’s all we’re given for context, and it’s plenty. At the bottom of the stairs she looks up, and on the street does it again, seeing her vacant apartment through a now naked window. Five minutes, four mumbled words, four written words, and we’re set.
Now in her car, Laure uses the heating vent as a blow drier, her dark curly hair a mess of contradictory information: wild but coiled, inviting but enshrouding. A man raps on her window and gives her a startle. She puts the car in drive and pulls away, seeing in the rearview that he looks more exasperated than menacing. She stops to leave a voice message for her boyfriend. “I can’t wait to be at your place,” she says. “Our place, I mean. I have to get used to that.” Back in the car she immediately hits traffic. The radio tells about a transit strike and cheerfully advises motorists to pick up stranded travelers. A car crawls alongside and the man she denied frowns from the passenger seat. Chastened, she asks a young man passing on foot if he needs a ride, but he declines. First a rejecter, now she’s rejected. Sitting in traffic suddenly has a vague charge. Steam rises from beneath the hood. Young lovers argue on the sidewalk. A ballet of cars inch forward in unison. Laure notices a man (Vincent Lindon) walking between the idled cars. A raffish fortysomething with an upturned collar, he seems to be shopping for an empty car seat. A blonde in the car next to Laure’s grins and primps in anticipation. Laure’s thoughts drift elsewhere before a knock on the window calls her back. She is chosen.
“Leave me where you want,” he says, tilting back the car seat. Inches away from a complete stranger, in a small canopy sealed off from the rest of the stalled fleet of vehicles, she looks over at him. She notices his legs, his neck, watches him scratch his chest beneath his collar. He nods off, she follows, and then he jars her awake by placing his hand on her arm. They move forward. She introduces herself and learns that his name is Jean. She grins a little to herself as it dawns on her what could happen, what she might want to happen.
Now a quarter through the film, the boredom and lethargy of slow-moving traffic gradually seems precious, and Laure and Jean, if not yet moving, become more active. Information that might be considered secondary is here primary evidence of seduction. He smokes, she inhales. He helps her cross two lanes to make a turn, and she impulsively asks him to dinner. After she gets out to use a pay phone to cancel her other plans, she returns to find that her car is gone. She panics and starts walking away, coatless but pretending not to be cold, chastising herself for trusting a stranger, negotiating humiliation. Jean runs up to her, grabs her by the arm and ushers her to the car’s passenger seat. “We’ll try something,” he says, and zooms the car backward, then forward, fast, faster. She looks out the window and reflections of buildings and neon signs blur across her face. Images recently savored now retreat. She suddenly wants it all to stop, and threatens to jump out. Just as quickly, Jean stops the car, says goodnight, and walks off. Laure moves back to the driver’s seat. She feels the wheel, mindful of its memory. Then she smells her hands. Her own space has been erotically transformed. She sits differently.
Back in control, Laure cruises to find Jean and to restore what suddenly went awry. She sees him through the window of a café and dwells for a second on the mirrored glass and façade, on Jean mildly flirting with a girl playing pinball, on the romance of the scene. Inside she accepts a coffee and clumsily scalds herself while Jean fixes on her. She seems out of practice, almost childlike, yet like an experienced dance partner she’s subtly making it okay for him to lead again. Halfway through the film now, the 44th minute giving way to the 45th, Denis pushes it all—Laure, the story, her audience—to the threshold. Jean asks for change then excuses himself. Then Laure descends a flight of stairs on the way to the bathroom, entering the frame (and seducing us) shoes and tights first before passing Jean halfway as he ascends. Movement slows as she brushes past and looks to him, then Denis cuts to his matching POV, then to Laure in the bathroom brushing the back of her hair, her neck exposed and inviting. Her eyes drift to a pay phone (“This machine only takes cards,” it says) then a condom machine (“10F”), and she realizes why Jean asked for change. Strings pluck and gently rise, tempo hastening. He helps her with her coat and purse, and she puts on her gloves. The lights of the café go off as they hit the street. “Let’s walk,” he says, before slipping a hand inside her glove. They stop, kiss, and commence their affair.
Narratively speaking, what follows is a one-night stand much like any other. But what distinguishes Friday Night is its loyalty to Laure’s point of view, to her pleasure and sense of control. She’s not whisked away by a dominant leading man—though impulsive and strong, Jean is respectful and clearly turned on by Laure’s self-possession (she lets him order their food, but she pays for it). And she doesn’t lose herself in the moment— she owns it. Her experience is total. Time is short and she intends to appreciate every sensation. They rent a room in an empty hotel and Laure slinks around the room and halls like a cat. She listens to the door latch clack. She pets a mangy red bedspread. After a kiss she envelops Jean in a full body hug—a warm, sincere embrace worthy of lifelong intimates. Hands explore clothes and discover quarries of white skin. They inhale each other, they take turns straddling each other. After making love she pets his chest hair and face. “Your hands smells of rubber,” he says. A space heater burns orange in the corner.
Denis’s vision, Godard’s camera, Lemercier’s and the viewer’s gaze fully overlap, so that the story’s elliptical nature seems neither willful nor precious, but a manifestation of consciousness. Denis frequently dissolves Laure with the object of her gaze, teaching us to simultaneously see and appreciate the seeing. Looking at Laure while looking as Laure, we come to personalize what’s before us, and share in Laure’s both passive and active participation in the evening. Not only does Laure see and feel intensely, she manufactures imagery in the form of daydreams and fantasies. Letters anthropomorphize on the trunk of a car; anchovies smile at her from the face of a pizza; Jean washes a socialite’s feet in the sink of a restaurant bathroom. These are silly little digressions but as free associations they’re plausible and organic, and help meld our POV with Laure’s. So when, amidst her affair, she flashes to her empty apartment and imagines the lampshade floating across the room to rejoin the lamp, we accept and expect the absurdity—for this is how Laure’s playful mind works—but also can appreciate that a genuine and complex feeling is being expressed. Objects and images become living and remembered parts of us, evidence of who we are and where we’ve been, but they also recede. Laure’s restoring and mourning for herself, and as the night and Denis’s film draw to a close we can share in those emotions.
Valerie Lemercier, best known for deadpan comedic roles (The Visitors, Palais Royal!), is necessarily a revelation in Friday Night. Her enigmatic, plain face suggests inner depth and intelligence but not, at first, passion. It’s easy to identify and share a car with Laure, but it takes a while to recognize her desirability. First her hair, then a devilish curve to her smile, then a lithe pair of legs, then milky skin that responds red to the touch—eventually we learn Laure’s allure, and through our identification even feel in possession of it.
This is a film about the importance of details, not destinations. Of course we’re aware of inevitabilities and finalities, but Friday Night celebrates the transitional and momentary. We know that the traffic will eventually clear. We know that the night will end. We know that tomorrow Laure will move in with her boyfriend. But what’s known isn’t nearly as interesting as what’s unknowable and fleeting. Laure and Jean fuck several times during the night, but Denis obscures the acts. She’s not as interested in climax as she is in the ways their bodies move, in how and where they kiss, in the used condom wrapper. We don’t know what Laure does for a living, and we’ve barely heard her speak. But we’ve seen her wear a strange man’s socks, and we’ve seen how it made her strangely happy. Some complain that in Friday Night, as in other Denis film like L’Intrus or Beau travail, nothing happens. Basic plot aside, the opposite is really true. Senses are heightened, and what’s banal seems magical. Everything happens.
In the blue-grey of the early morning, it’s Laure that wakes and slips away, not Jean. She whispers his name to say goodbye, but Denis cuts away before we can know if he awakens or if they speak. On the street now, her walk hastens until she’s running. She’s not taking the car—she’d slipped the keys into Jean’s coat during the night, making a gift of what brought them together—and considering the hour she’s not in a hurry. Yet she runs. Faster, faster, she passes cars, signs, the neon eyeglasses, and she drifts into the middle of the street. Music gradually arises. In the final shot Laure enters from the right and the image slows to show her bounding forward and smiling from ear to ear. It’s a short, gorgeously smeared vision of euphoria, vivid enough to endure beyond Laure’s exit from the frame, her return to a standard narrative, and the end of our Friday Night.