Monday, October 12, 2009

Female European directors: Vendredi Soir (2002)

Vendredi Soir (2002, Claire Denis)

On a Friday night in Paris, dear Laure (Valérie Lemercier) is packing her things. Very soon she’ll be moving into a new apartment with her current partner. Moving is rarely a fun activity. You are exiting a place where you may have been comfortable for a while into a new domain that may or may not be as welcoming as you hope it shall. We’ve been there before. To put her mind to rest once her packing chores are over and done with, Laure heads out for a meeting with friends at a restaurant. Her forgetfulness plays a ruse on her since the reality of the public transportation strike affecting Paris on this Friday has slipped her mind. Stuck in traffic like a bug stuck in dried cement, Laure passes the time with the radio and by observing what activity is stirring outside her car. Not getting anywhere fast, talk shows, honking from other drivers, yes… a great Friday evening by any stretch of the definition.

After an undetermined amount of time elapses, fate has Laure meet Jean (Vincent London), a man hoping to catch a ride and flee the rain. Laure, being the decent person that she is, agrees to have him tag alone for the slow, slow ride. But what began as an honest gesture of friendliness transforms both of their evenings into an unforgettable and unique evening of discovery and uninhibited emotions. They slowly get to know each other, and before you can say ‘De la sauce bolognaise s’il vous plaît’ Laure and Jean become lovers for one night.

To convey this discovery of emotions, a very specific aesthetic is by Denis and her crew. In the case of Vendredi Soir, there is a host of very close camera shots which invite viewers into this aesthetically unique world Denis has created. The frame is often dominated by either a hand, lips, a shoulder, a touch (whether delicate or more passionate), feet, etc. It’s a very intimate camera that places itself right in the action to capture many of the special, little moments when two lovers are together. For several reasons, it’s an interesting stylistic choice in that it emphasizes the physical contact experienced by the two characters, which in of itself is an extension of the emotional connection they have found with one another. Two figures, both solitary on this night, one caught in traffic with the stress of moving into a different location on her mind, the other to find refuge from the rain and kindness in the heart of a stranger. When these strangers meet, there’s a connection that immediately builds. It does so slowly at first, beginning with small talk (as all new encounters do), but as the hours pass, it develops into a remarkably passionate affair, one that only a privileged few would be willing to dive in to. This is all despite the fact they haven’t really gotten to know each other very well by the time the sun begins to rise the next morning. It is a theme worthy of exploration within the medium of cinema and certainly within a film of this kind, which is small and has a intimate feel to it. On appelle ça le ‘cinéma d’auteur’. The notion that two people who are strangers to one another can find a connection so perfect under the circumstances is brilliant and, as real life can testify, sometimes true. It happens every day around the world. Perhaps not the love making sessions with the person you’ve just met (although some can testify to that part as well), but many of us have spent a remarkable brief period with someone we had only just met. Remarkable for how it always reminds us of our need for those connections, to have at least someone close to us, to how compatible we are with one another when the stars are aligned. The timing, our moods, what happened earlier that day, all these will influence what connections we make when least expect it. Maybe that’s called fate, or just life. It’s a special occasion that speaks to our need to socialize and to feel one another, whether physically or purely on an emotional level. At its core, Vendredi Soir is a nod to our shared humanity, and that’s a beautiful thing.

And now I’ll proceed to rip all that apart.

No I won’t, I was merely pulling your legs. No, there is nothing wrong with what Denis’ film attempts to accomplish. In truth, it is more the fashion in which it makes those attempts that, while certainly not bad per say, had me longing for something different after a while. I got into a discussion with someone over at the famous Filmspotting message boards about the cinematography and editing of the film, the close up shots I wrote about above. In fact, the part I wrote about how this aesthetic reinforces the idea of the physicality of Laure and Jean’s relationship…that was my fellow message board member’s argument. And to be fair, he is correct in that assessment. The logic supporting the decision to make such a stylistic choice is quite sound. Having said that, and movies being the special kind of beasts they are, I reserve the right to not appreciate the visual merits of said technique, all the while accepting the thematic reasons for its usage. Film, above all else, is a visual medium after all. After a while, the splendour of the close up shots waned somewhat. As you may be able to tell, my feelings towards the style are ambiguous. I’m accepting of the thematic value, but I just really don’t like the way it looks. A bit odd, I’ll concede that, but this is my review, so deal. I can take the shaky cam when it’s handled aptly, as I can close quarter cinematography, but only to a certain degree, especially regarding the latter. There’s something oddly claustrophobic about it that gets under my skin. It’s a very specific issue that I’m wrestling with, one that in no way destroyed my viewing experience, let me be clear about that issue. I discussed with a couple of other people who have an appreciation for the film and they also agree with my Filmspotting acquaintance that the visual effectiveness of the technique is solid. Good for them. I simply don’t find it aesthetically pleasing. A couple of shots maybe, but it doesn’t take long for me to grow tired of it.

Having said that (you know where to send hate mail), I should point out that there are some very pleasant visual cues to found here. There are a couple of wide shots of Paris, one in the day time and another in the early evening, which caught my eye. Some of the early scenes when Laure is sitting in her car looking outside feature great lighting, especially when beautiful neon lights are reflected off her driver side window, are gorgeous. Director Denis does an admirable job of brining a certain romanticism into this effort, which is in sharp contrast to some of her other work, such as Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day. The fact that the story takes place over the course of one evening and throughout the night adds a lot as well. We dream at night, we are obsessed with the notion that love blooms at night (most dates still take place after the sun sets, don’t they?), the wise lighting choices that highlight some scenes, there is in fact a romantic, dreamlike quality to this movie that I liked a fair bit. And despite my reservations about some of the cinematography, there are nonetheless some scenes that still find ways to work well, my favourite being the diner sequence, which occurs shortly after Laure and Jean have expressed their passion for each other. There are so many fine details to their brief relationship that are elaborated on during those few minutes, as well as great food on the table, that that particular scene continues to stick out in my mind. Both Valérie Lemercier and Vincent London should be applauded for their mature performances. In a strange sense, I found both actors fairly reserved in their respective roles, this despite the fact that there’s this rush of special emotions rushing through them. I think that all the while this story is playing out, both Laure and Jean realize how ‘silly’ they are behaving. This is a fine balance about their performances that struck me.

By the time their affair arrives to its mostly logical conclusion, Denis opts to avoid unnecessary melodrama. Of course, this is a European director’s marathon, so anyone expecting unnecessary melodrama is bound to be disappointed. Go catch a Paul Haggis film. As daylight greets the streets of Paris, Laure decides to flee the hotel room she and Jean rented for the night in which they shared their passion. Jean is still fast sleeping soundly while she makes her getaway. The final moments of the film have Laure galloping in the streets, almost like a school girl giddy about her first boyfriend crush. In a way she still is a giddy girl, if only temporarily. She has given in to something inside of her that under other circumstances she never would have. And you what else? It probably felt darn good too. I like the ending a lot because of its uninhibited satisfaction. The main character went with her heart instead of her mind and got away with it. In some ways, I think maybe Claire Denis did as well. Après tout, il faut vivre avec le coeur des fois!

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