The unexpected brief encounter that Claire Denis takes as her subject in Friday Night is not founded on the thrill of anonymous sex but something more and less—it’s as though Denis were rehearsing some new notion of courtly love. Or perhaps this gifted filmmaker is only marking time.
Shown at last year’s New York Film Festival, Friday Night plays out in a cozy corner somewhere in the realm of gratified desire. The opening sequence evokes a magical Paris where—for what could be days and nights—thirtysomething single woman Laure (Valérie Lemercier) packs up her possessions in anticipation of moving in with her lover. He only exists as the voice on an answering machine; Laure takes a bath, so we’re intimate with her. Then she leaves her apartment, hops in her car—loaded with her belongings—and drives out into a strike-produced traffic jam that has snarled the entire city.
“When I first saw [Roberto Rossellini’s] Voyage in Italy,” Jean-Luc Godard recalled in a recent interview, “I thought, ‘with two characters in a car you can make a film.’ If you want to, it can be done. [Claude] Lelouch did it. That doesn’t mean it will be a good film.” Closer to Lelouch’s sappy A Man and a Woman than Rossellini’s Voyage, although more minimalist than either, Friday Night is an impacted road romance. The movie is richer in metaphor than narrative drive. Laure, on the verge of surrendering her independence, is literally a woman in transition—she even has a “For Sale” sign pasted to the window. The allegorical gridlock makes time stand still. The cars are isolating little worlds, but baby, it’s cold outside. I doubt the expression TGIF has been incorporated into Franglais, but that anticipatory sentiment, at least in the Western world, is universal. Stage thus set, Laure’s dream man Jean (Vincent Lindon) materializes out of the mist—followed by the eyes of other women—with the self-assured bravado of the hunk in a Coke commercial.
A female voice on the radio news, which is exclusively devoted to the traffic jam, is advising people to pick up hitchhikers. Laure complies: Jean gets into her car, sinks into his seat, and promptly falls asleep. Laure dozes off too—in the first of several teasing and somewhat awkward hints that the whole adventure, or aspects of it, may be her reverie. Meanwhile, fights erupt on the street; Laure goes out into the night to make a phone call and imagines she’s lost her car. Then, Jean takes over the driving and Friday Night shifts briefly into Hitchcockian adventure.
Denis’s gently fragmented montage is impressionistic rather than analytical, suavely interpolating a few stray new wave-isms (star cameos, bits of animation, languid superimpositions). The movie is filled with close-ups, often shot with Agnès Godard’s camera in motion; this is particularly so during the central although relatively discreet sex scene, staged like a solemn ritual. The sensuousness that characterized Denis’s strongest films, Beau Travail and Nénette et Boni, is scarcely apparent—it’s striking that in both of these, sexual desire is more or less sublimated in tropical light and ecstatic film craft.
Glamorously hyper-ordinary, Lemercier and Lindon make a pleasant pair of mature lovers. Of course, from the filmmaker’s perspective, the blank screen that is Lindon’s Jean seems ideal—he’s projected as capable, tender, ardent, and a bit mysterious. (Emmanuèle Bernheim’s original novel is written in the first person and, although there are no voice-overs, that’s largely how the movie is filmed.) It’s almost charmingly French that, as in the more middlebrow analogue An Affair of Love, the couple’s first impulse after taking a room and making love is, as Jean exclaims, “Let’s go to dinner!” The scene in the modest Italian place they find feels considerably longer than the one in their stuffy little cinq à sept and is characterized by at least as much gusto. Even the round little pizza pie smiles up at Laure, anticipating her own response when Saturday dawns and she skips slo-mo back to her life.
Based on a common, if not universal, erotic fantasy, Friday Night‘s slight exercise has naturally provoked an excess of feeling. In Film Comment, Amy Taubin called it “one of the sexiest films ever made” on its subject; writing in The New Yorker, David Denby found Friday Night “enraging” in its undue taciturnity. Indeed, while Taubin lavished praise on Denis’s visual language, Denby disapprovingly noted that the most extensive comment Jean makes to Laure in the afterglow of their lovemaking is, “Your hand smells like rubber.” It’s all subjective; reading another sort of naturalism into the scene, I thought his observation was, “Your hand smells like a rubber.”
Speaking of one-night stands, Ron Shelton’s cheerfully inane Hollywood Homicide is an odd-couple policier matching a weary-looking veteran detective (Harrison Ford) with a dewy-eyed rookie (Josh Hartnett). The guys are working a hip-hop murder case—four rappers gunned down gangland style in an L.A. club—and the milieu allows for a large cast of young motormouths while enabling the running gag of Ford as an old Motown man. His cell phone rings the first few bars of “My Girl,” while in a stab at the frolicsome, he plays “The Tracks of My Tears” and executes a stiff version of the skate.
Shelton is basically a lighthearted director, and for all its indifferently choreographed pratfalls, bullet-fueled slapstick, rollicking bumper cars, madcap police interrogations, and hee-haw autopsy gags, Hollywood Homicide is primarily an antic sitcom. The surplus of character humor seems all the more desperate in view of the essentially humorless stars. (Do I smell sequel—or is that only flop sweat?) Moonlighting as a real estate broker, deadbeat Ford is forever trying to unload his house and fending off the repo men. While Hartnett is a Buddhist babe magnet who never lacks for a naked honey in his hot tub, Ford is given a bizarre sex scene with Lena Olin and a frosted donut. Forced to play rambunctious, the obviously bored star never gets any respect—at one point in his pursuit of the bad guy he’s compelled to commandeer a little girl’s Schwinn.
As its title suggests, Hollywood Homicide is heavy on local color. Everybody is peddling a script or wants to be a star, especially young Hartnett: “I have to follow my bliss.” There’s a gunfight in front of Grauman’s Chinese, a shoot-out in an agent’s office, and a car chase through Beverly Hills that’s reported live: “I’ve never seen such drama in Hollywood before,” the reporter enthuses. Whose voice is that? Hollywood Homicide knows it’s a dog, and it ain’t too proud to beg.
Arguably the founding work of the American independent cinema, John Cassavetes’s 1959 Shadows is the prototype for Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, and all their progeny. Cassavetes’s first feature, which is receiving a 10-day run at Anthology Film Archives in a newly restored print, was a one-film American new wave; with his aggressive sincerity and swaggering integrity, Cassavetes became the prototype for the American independent director—the Method actor turned filmmaker.
Shadows can be bracketed with Breathless, completed the same year, as a low-budget, post-neorealist, pre-cinema-verité Something New. Both are predicated on handheld camera, stolen locations, elliptical editing, and extended bedroom scenes featuring self-conscious performances by 20-year-old actresses acting like they are characters in a movie. But Shadows is more episodic and performer-driven. Using the members of a drama workshop he directed, Cassavetes shot 30 hours of footage based on their improvisations. The Charles Mingus score later added makes the jazz analogue explicit. Indeed, as the movie’s principals are black, white, and mulatto, race is crucial to the movie. So is authenticity. Anticipating life in a Warhol movie, Cassavetes’s performers struggle to remain in character (in the now) despite miscues, blown lines, and unforeseen improvisations; much of Shadows‘ naturalism derives from applying a workshop sense of invented personalities to everyday life and a corresponding failure of the characters—or is it the actors?—to successfully live up to their images.
Opening commercially in New York in March 1961 (a month after Breathless), Shadows impressed The New York Times as a near documentary “shot without benefit of a screenplay, without a word of dialogue written down, without a commanding director to tell the actors precisely what to do.” In fact, the movie had been substantially reshot and re-edited since its first public screening in late 1958. It’s appropriate that the restored print is having its premiere at Anthology’s Jonas Mekas Theater. Then writing for the Voice, Mekas was Shadows‘ greatest critical champion, at least until Cassavetes revised the movie for narrative coherence a year later. Ray Carney has published a framework for the original version in his BFI Shadows monograph. It would be an amazing event if the ur-Shadows were ever to re-emerge.
“The Sound of Sex: The Tindersticks’ Soundtracks for Claire Denis” by Dennis Lim