Friday Night (2002)

Dir. by Claire Denis

Joanna tells me — and she’s told me this many times over the years — that she fell in love the first time we held hands. I couldn’t imagine what she meant. Men, in my experience at least, seldom consider hands. Or, we consider them only when they’re noticeable — scarred, chewed, ornamented by loudly painted nails. Even then, though, we offer only a passing glance and a quick, rarely-conscious judgment. To really consider a hand demands a certain intimacy, I think. We’re allowed to stare at faces, encouraged even to maintain eye contact during public conversations, but to really look at a hand (or the place where a neck meets a shoulder or the back of a knee) is taboo outside of a bedroom (metaphorically speaking).

In After Life, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s brilliant 1998 film about a heaven in which the new-dead film the happiest moment of their lives that they might relive it eternally, one woman restages her first taste of love a perfectly innocent encounter on a public bench and when we finally see the finished film, it culminates in a slow zoom onto her lover’s hands. That sequence, like nearly every frame of Claire Denis’s Friday Night, reminded me of Joanna’s words and sent me off wondering about “the female gaze.” (The quotation marks allow me to allude casually to feminist film theory, though I’m not sure yet if that is what I’m really after here.)

Denis seems to have discovered a cinematographic grammar entirely of her own. I say that having seen only three of her films Beau Trevail, which I love in part because I never would have imagined such an adaptation of Billy Budd possible; L’Intrus, which is the most beautifully frustrating film I’ve seen this year; and now Friday Night, a film about a woman (Valérie Lemercier) who has an affair the night before she is to move in with her boyfriend. I would like to read a formal analysis of one of Denis’s films because I simply don’t understand how they work. She and cinematographer Agnès Godard are able, somehow, to create a world that is both recognizably real and mythic; the camera remains objective (showing us things that no character could have seen), but it also becomes so intimately involved with the action that the entire film is covered by a sheen of subjective emotion. Magic is possible.

When we were discussing L’Intrus, Girish kept reminding me that the line separating narrative- from experimental filmmaking has been arbitrarily drawn and that Denis’s films prove the point. While more neatly-plotted than her latest feature, Friday Night also slips easily across those borders. The lovemaking scenes, for example, are constructed from a collage of extreme close-ups that slip in and out of focus to the point of abstraction. Sex, which is so often reduced by most films to little more than genital stimulation, becomes alien. And familiar. A patchwork of fingers and necks and ankles. And hands. If I were asked to summarize Friday Night, I would say it is a film about hands and about the impossible fact that my wife decided to love me the moment she first held mine.