Monday, September 01, 2003

Friday Night (Denis, 2002) A+

Back in the summer 2000, I saw Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort at the Roxie in San Francisco. When the movie finished, the experience was so overwhelming that I darted out of the theater, my loyal companion in tow, in a desperate effort to avoid hearing any dumbasses dissing the sublime picture I'd just seen. I failed. Later in 2000, I tried a different tact, preferring to drown out the second-hand noise with my own babbling after the North American premiere of In the Mood for Love. Again, no such luck.

It's not that I'm intolerant of differing opinions on movies in general. But my responses to these two particular movies especially were so intensely personal that I felt the need to create a spatial sanctuary to preserve my rapturous experience. Leave the "Best Movie" debates for someone else. The movie experiences I cherish most aren't necessarily the "greatest movies", but ones that feel like they're made just for me. Those movies are like that girl you fall for, the one whose charms you're especially susceptible to (but whose best qualities are not immediately obviously to others). You're defiantly and staunchly protective of her, perhaps defending her a little too zealously when friends express doubts, forgetting that it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks sometimes. You're the one in love, and they're not.

That's a rather longwinded preamble to a review of a movie, Claire Denis' Friday Night, about which I have almost nothing of substance to say. Oh, I suppose I could say that this is the most sensuous thing I've ever seen. Denis' film is essentially about the sights and sounds of Paris -- the way the rooftops of old Paris look at dusk, the neon shop signs that cuts through the darkness, the coffee shops and downtrodden hotels, and the faces of the passer-bys. It's a film takes delight in observing, but not with a steely stare, but in impressionistic sketches. The amazing Agnes Godard, as she did in Denis' Trouble Every Day, shoots the flesh like David Lean shot the desert: she renders the body beautiful not by prettifying or flattering, but through abstraction. By choosing the exact tight shots of these middle-aged backs and editing those shots together just so, this simple one night encounter between two normal-looking actors appeared on the screen to be the most beautiful lovemaking in the world. Often too opaque for rigorous storytelling and extended character studies, Denis' elliptical, tactile, and highly cinematic style is perfectly suited for a minimalist tone poem, where she can capture those little moments of insight (do not plant a hickie on a hitched woman) and take pleasure in evoking plangent moods through music and images without having to worry about structure or coherence. And I suppose something should be said about the sheer *poetry* of the filmmaking -- the perfect blend of offhanded lyricism and smartly composed shots -- on display here. Perhaps the best description (and compliment) I can give to Friday Night is that it's an entire movie in the style and mood of the glorious "Gary meets Celeste" seduction scene in Out of Sight.

But the gibberish I just wrote is woefully inadequate. Like nearly all of my favorite works, what's most precious about Friday Night can't be put in words (that's why it's a movie), because it's not primarily about ideas. It does what movies do best: convey a specific feeling and mood in a particular place and time. In Paris on a Friday night of the transporation workers' strike, Laure and Jean, lonely and horny, meet and fuck. With a story to fill about a ten minute sketch, Denis composed one of the most beautiful and seductive movies I'd ever laid eyes on.

When I saw Friday Night, the middle-aged Beverly Hills audience was palpably restless. I knew that, like Young Girls and In the Mood, this plotless, nearly silent tone poem -- no matter how beautiful and cinematic -- isn't for everyone. So I tried to bum rush out of the the theater, but once again I failed to avoid hearing tired complaints about "long traffic scenes" and how it's "so slow!" and other such nonsense. For a moment I was simmering with anger at these "Philistines". But after I got in my car and the Tindersticks' somber strings from the soundtrack to Trouble Every Day washed over me, I realized: hey, I fell hard for what I just saw and I don't much care what anyone else thinks.