Sex and the City 

Soft lights, beautiful strangers and Paris by night add up to a unique date movie

Soft lights, beautiful strangers and Paris by night add up to a unique date movie

Friday Night

Dir.: Claire Denis

NR, 90 min.

Opening Friday at the Belcourt

Friday Night, the lightest, most playful film to date by France’s extraordinary Claire Denis, isn’t just the most romantic movie I’ve seen in ages. It’s the first in a long time to understand what’s really exciting about a romantic movie: not a collection of platitudes and plot devices, but the moment-to-moment flood of sensation that accompanies falling in love, or even lust. If a movie concerns a single night of magic in Paris—a night when beautiful strangers whisk in and out of each other’s lives, when even beads of rain on a windshield gleam like neon pearls—let me swim in those lights, that misting of rain, that sweet sad pull of attraction.

Denis’ gentle wisp of a story, adapted with Emmanuèle Bernheim from her novel, concerns Laure (Valérie Lemercier), a Parisian woman snarled in traffic the night before she’s to move in with her boyfriend. In traffic, her eyes and mind wander: She watches the drizzle on her windows, mentally rearranges the name of the car in front of her. A man appears at her car, burly, tousled, with rugged looks that suggest a hint of mystery. On a whim, she invites him in. After minutes stuck in place, the stranger, Jean, played by Vincent Lindon, says he knows a way out. What to do? The night is young and slow, and they’re in Paris. Laure hands him the keys.

In the abstract, this is Red Shoe Diaries material—or it would be, if that softcore Scheherazade were intended for lovers instead of Peeping Toms. Denis has a tougher mind and a keener eye. Her other movies, made with her invaluable cinematographer Agnès Godard, are immersions in sensual detail. Her heat-stricken Billy Budd update Beau travail made a remote Legionnaire outpost as vivid as its scorching dust; her underrated vampire variation Trouble Every Day evoked a lovelorn nightworld out of grainy shadows. The stories were less convincing or coherent than the cumulative effect of all that texture. You didn’t watch the movies, you felt your way through them.

“How does it feel?” is a question Denis and Godard appear to have asked of every frame of Friday Night. How does it feel to follow a crazy impulse, to wonder about a kiss, to have the mere presence of the person beside you turn the city into a nighttime playground? The movie shows just by paying attention. As their car escapes the traffic, speeding through unfamiliar streets, Laure watches out the window. Denis lets us share her giddy view, of light glinting off ordinary buildings turned strange with unsuspected possibility. As they settle down for dinner, thrumming with sexual tension, the movie even takes us inside Laure’s imagination, where she can’t help but play out jealous scenarios and visions of a what-if future.

Part of the movie’s appeal is that Lemercier and Lindon are perfectly scaled lovers: not movie stars, exactly, more like people you pass in a supermarket or coffee shop and feel the slightest twinge of a crush. People you think about while you’re walking away. But Friday Night’s appeal comes mostly from Denis’ rapt attention to what happens to the world under the influence of passion: Attraction makes color sharper, quickens the senses, electrifies the touch. In a hotel room, with Laure’s possible lover just an arm’s length away, the movie pauses to take in the varying textures of the bedspread and carpet, which suddenly seem intensely clear.

To some, this may seem slow and boring. Is this slow? Yes, like foreplay, if you’re doing it right. Is this boring? As boring as the minutes before the first time you made love. Friday Night reminded me of the best scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High: a teenager losing her virginity in a baseball dugout, shown from her point of view. A man could have shot and ruined that scene a hundred different crummy ways. But the woman director, Amy Heckerling, chose to linger over the graffiti and grubby details burning themselves into the girl’s memory. Friday Night is 90 minutes of that scene’s sensory immediacy—only with better sex and better memories.

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