It seems that with every year that passes, the world gets colder and more detached. The internet, cell phones, social media – all of these technological innovations progressively isolate us from each other, stunting our capacity for empathy and limiting the quantity and quality of our personal interactions. When Claire Denis‘ Vendredi Soir (English: ‘Friday Night’) came out in 2002, these issues were only a distant glimmer on the horizon. Nevertheless, Denis’ film offers a genuinely touching portrait of two strangers trusting each other and forging an intimate bond within an otherwise monotonous and uncaring world. Through its intoxicating visuals, dreamy atmosphere, and minimal story, Vendredi Soir makes a case for the profound importance and inexplicable magic of intimacy (emotionally as much as physically) with another human being.
Vendredi Soir opens with a visual allusion to the beginning of Arthur Penn‘s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde. In a series of restless jumpcuts, Laure (Valérie Lemercier) paces around her Paris apartment while she prepares to move out. She leaves to go meet some friends for dinner, but almost immediately becomes stuck in a never-ending traffic jam (one that holds its own against the anxious frustration and scale of those from 8 ½ and Jean-Luc Godard‘s Weekend), courtesy of an ongoing public transit strike. Bored and exhausted, she drifts in and out of sleep in her car on the frigid wintery streets of Paris. Suddenly a man appears out of the night like a ghostly apparition – Jean (Vincent Lindon). She offers him a ride (as the public radio encourages doing for hitchhikers), and the two begin to form an intimate bond that culminates in an affectionate one-night stand.
In many ways, Vendredi Soir is perhaps Claire Denis’ most experimental film to date, taking her typically impressionistic visual aesthetic to its dazzling conclusion. Extreme close-ups – on faces, on food, on bodies in passionate embrace – comprise the vast majority of its runtime, imbuing the film with a startling degree of intimacy and romantic wonder. As Laure and Jean get to know each other, the entire world of the film changes – the sleepy city lights of Paris become brighter, welcoming, even loving. The specificity of Agnès Godard‘s cinematography evokes the feeling of watching something between a memory and dream, during the quiet hours when most of the world is comfortably in their beds and a cold wind blows outside. A charming score by frequent Denis-collaborator Tindersticks fills in the silences left by the film’s conspicuous aversion to dialogue, doing far more to convey the whimsical attraction Laure and Jean feel for one another better than any conversation could. While it may bear a rough likeness to typical romance stories, Vendredi Soir is actually quite dissimilar to something more mainstream, painting its spur-of-the-moment relationship with much broader strokes and more emotional restraint than the down-to-earth charisma of a Before film. Nevertheless, the chemistry between Vincent Lindon and Valérie Lemercier is incredibly compelling and sweet.
There’s a maturity to Vendredi Soir that stays in the mind long after it has concluded. One often thinks of one-night stands as awkward, functional affairs, but Denis presents her film’s as remarkably tender and (most importantly) respectful. At an early point in the film, Laure feels a moment of distrustful panic while Jean is at the driver’s seat and asks to be taken home. Instead of trying to quell her concerns as irrational or misguided, Jean pulls over and lets himself out. Later, when they’re about to leave for a hotel room, the two separately purchase condoms in anticipation of sleeping with a relative stranger. All of these aspects of the film’s romance are a breath of fresh air and noticeably removed from stereotypical romance tropes, yet it’s difficult to imagine their unique blend of world-worn realism and sophisticated fantasy existing anywhere outside of a movie.
While Vendredi Soir may not be Claire Denis’ most successful work, its context within her filmography offers it an additional layer of depth. The film came out just one year after her perverted horror masterpiece Trouble Every Day, a work that covers the polar opposite end of human sexuality and desire. That film concerned two characters driven to sexual cannibalism, reflecting the worst, most selfish aspects of an otherwise very natural and healthy impulse. And yet, both Vendredi Soir and Trouble Every Day present their consummations of desire in a remarkably similar manner, shooting their sex scenes in close-ups so intense and tactile that the bodies of both partners blend into one abstract organism. While the beauty of Vendredi Soir stands on its own, its role as a spiritual companion piece to Trouble Every Day in the exploration of desire affords it an even more resonant appeal. Only by seeing both films, by seeing both the ugliest and most beautiful sides of humanity on the same canvas, can one fully appreciate the richness and specificity of their director’s artistic vision. Claire Denis has never and will never be a “mainstream”, universally beloved filmmaker – her body of work is much too idiosyncratic and at times outwardly cold – but Vendredi Soir remains one of her most touching and quietly moving films to date.