- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

“Friday Night,” exclusively at the Avalon, is a soft-core tease from French filmmaker Claire Denis, who envisions a rapturous one-night stand with a stranger despite adverse conditions. While reluctant to deny anyone an agreeable sex fantasy, I detect a potential downside to the sort of rendezvous glorified by Miss Denis.

Unscrupulous predators might be lured to Paris on exceptionally cold nights in January during municipal transit strikes on the hunch that they, too, will score with Frenchwomen who happen to (1) be stuck in massive traffic jams and (2) be susceptible to brief encounters with seductive pedestrians who appear at their windows. Evidently, radio stations urge motorists to welcome strangers inside when the temperature plummets. This would cease to be a commendable gesture if it helped mashers or armed robbers leapfrog from car to car with little fear of apprehension. But I guess that’s another movie.

To be precise, Miss Denis has transposed a chancey enchanted evening originated by the novelist Emmanuele Bernheim, whose collaboration on the screenplay reinforces my suspicion that a coy conspiracy is afoot. The heroine, named Laure and portrayed by Valerie Lemercier, is introduced packing boxes at an apartment she intends to vacate over the weekend in order to join an unseen boyfriend named Francois at his place. In other words, it’s a turning-point weekend. Perhaps more things are permissible in France on turning-point weekends.

Ostensibly, Laure plans to dine with friends Friday evening. Hopelessly stalled, she cancels the date in the course of the fable. Because the traffic snarl is a given and precludes reaching a respectable destination, one questions the sincerity of the setup. It’s easier to believe Laure is conjuring up a sex fantasy while still at the old apartment or that she’s out on the prowl and tends to cruise whenever the moon is full and the streets teem with potential lovers. The movie is so wary of conversation and so fond of abstract, expectant imagery that I could have been persuaded that Laure was waiting to be abducted and molested by aliens before she got behind the wheel.

Her consort, named Jean, is portrayed by Vincent Lindon, who might be mistaken for Bryan Brown with a French accent. Neither principal is a glamourpuss, so the tryst in question is meant to possess the common touch. It’s not as if Laure needs to wait around all night for the young Louis Jourdan while Jean chills himself trying to find the car with Catherine Deneuve. Nevertheless, in the front and back of your mind you realize that a star-spangled variation on “Friday Night” might have more to recommend it, especially if someone hired a writer with a flair for amusing flirtatious dialogue.

Because pornographic candor and athleticism also are off the Denis-Bernheim agenda, one is obliged to linger in that state of cinematic inertia that always envelops a scenario in which you can anticipate the meager payoffs about two or three reels ahead of the plot. There’s a certain amount of misdirection, but it’s feeble at best. For example, Laure and Jean end up at a small hotel where there are nothing but vacancies and the clerk is obviously meant to be a misleading echo of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho.”

Between myopically photographed gropes in their love nest, the amorous strangers dine at an Italian restaurant. As dawn breaks on Saturday, Laure feels so blissful that she slips away and jogs along the streets with an ecstatic smile on her face. Evidently, she has decided to leave the car to Jean as a keepsake.

Where any of this leaves poor Francois is an abiding and pointless mystery. Where this leaves Laure and Jean, France’s most vaporous cold-weather love match, is equally intriguing.

Patrons at the Avalon have an even better excuse for discovering “Stone Reader,” the other movie on the premises. It lacks lukewarm erotic pretensions but does have the conversation and human interest you’ll be longing for if you sleepwalk into “Friday Night.”


TITLE: “Friday Night” (“Venedri Soir”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Claire Denis. Screenplay by Miss Denis and Emmanuele Bernheim, based on a novel by Miss Bernheim. Cinematography by Agnes Godard. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes


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