A Chance, But Not Inconsequential, Encounter: Claire Denis’ “Friday Night”
by Matthew Ross
If an auteur is a director who leaves an inimitable fingerprint on every film he (or she) makes, regardless of subject matter or genre, then Claire Denis surely qualifies. How else could she go from the greatly underrated “Trouble Every Day,” a sci-fi shocker about blood-and-sex-crazed cannibals, to “Friday Night,” a surreal, erotic story about a chance encounter during a Paris traffic jam, and almost make it feel as if the two films were cut from the same cloth? Denis has a way of carefully constructing cinematic worlds that are entirely her own — her camera is so attentive to the emotional state of the characters that it seems to caress them in every shot; she accesses private spaces (emotional and physical) without violating them; her locations are heavily art-directed but seem natural and unselfconscious. In a Claire Denis film, everything operates according to its own internal logic, and always at its own pace.
Denis has been well-known on the international arthouse circuit since she debuted with “Chocolat” in 1988 after spending more than 15 years as an assistant director for the likes of Wim Wenders, Dusan Makavejev, Costa-Gavras, and Jim Jarmusch. Her breakthrough effort came in 2000, with the masterful “Beau Travail,” a visually stunning, wholly original interpretation of Herman Melville’s “Billy Bud” starring Denis Lavant and Gregoire Colin as dueling French Legionairres in the remote East African country of Djibouti. Next came the infamous “Trouble Every Day,” in which Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle struggled to battle a mysterious illness that compelled them to screw people and eat them, often at the same time. (The film reportedly caused vomiting in the aisles during its premiere at Cannes.)
In her latest offering, “Friday Night” (based on the novel by Emmanuele Bernheim, who co-wrote the script with Denis), Denis and her excellent cinematographer and frequent collaborator Agnes Godard continue their ongoing experimentation with mood and tone as surrogates for more traditional plot devices. Very little happens in this small, fascinating movie (which stars Valerie Lemercier and Vincent Lindon), and almost nothing is said, but the moments have a strong and heavily symbolic emotional weight that prevent the narrative from seeming slight or inconsequential. indieWIRE contributor Matthew Ross spoke about the film with Denis at last year’s New York Film Festival; Wellspring is now rolling it out theatrically.
indieWIRE: “Friday Night” advances without dialogue or a clear-cut narrative. Why did you decided to tell the story in this way?
Claire Denis: I was so enthusiastic to adapt Emmanuele’s novel that I didn’t realize exactly what it involved. The novel is written in the first person, very much from the woman’s point of view. When the two characters first meet, there is no other plot than this meeting; everything is in the woman’s mind. There was no dialogue. She’s thinking, “Maybe this man is too good for me, he should have a better-looking wife.” When I started working with Emmanuele on the script, she knew the producer wanted me to add plot, to add fiction, to have extra stuff all around. I said, “No, no, no, don’t worry, we’re going to stick to the book, of course we are going to keep the first-person point of view. Let [the producer] scream, and then we’ll see what I’ll do.” Then when we finished the first scene, when the man and woman were already together in the car and she had the fantasy of the dinner with her friend and the baby crying, that’s when the problem with the adaptation came. I decided to start using voiceover, and we did it, and two days later I knew it sucked. The film was completely lost, the script blew; it wasn’t in the present, it was in the past, and so it took us five minutes to get rid of the voiceover.
Then we went back to rewriting the script. It was difficult. I was confident that the film would be purely cinematographical, but to be completely dependant on that approach when making a movie can make the story drift. I think the actors, my assistant, the DP, and the people on the crew were afraid there was nothing but this brief encounter with no dialogue. But the book had no dialogue, it was full of her own thoughts. I kept telling the actors and myself, “Maybe we should say something now.” But it was never necessary.
iW: Was the movie storyboarded?
Denis: No storyboards. For me, storyboards are dangerous, because everyone is dependent on the drawings, and therefore nothing interesting happens. I do my own breakdown; sometimes I draw, and show the crew the drawing of the frame. But that’s really just for [cinematographer] Agnes [Godard] to understand what kind of lens she’s going to use, or the proximity we will need. When you’re shooting, you find often find it’s better a different way than the way you designed on the storyboard, so I don’t use them.
iW: Do you cut in your head while you’re shooting?
Denis: Sometimes I cut in my head, but more often, I leave room for a second breath afterwards. A shot or a scene seems to be finished, but then there is always something left. A few minutes later, something always happens that is not expected.
iW: This film must have required a great deal of confidence because there were so few traditional elements — like plot and dialogue — to rely on. Would you have considered making a film like this earlier in your career?
Denis: No. I would never considered it earlier, and I never would have considered something like this on my own without the book. When I read the book, it seemed very obvious, even simple, but it wasn’t. It may have been obvious to me, but it took me a while to realize it wasn’t obvious to everyone.
I don’t consider myself someone who takes risks. I am very innocent in terms of tasking risks; I always think it’s completely normal, and everyone works as I do. I don’t exaggerate very well, what is risky and what is not. I don’t think I am a brave person, I think I am kind of very servile, because I don’t see the risks. It was not easy because of the conditions, but the film was simple for me.
iW: But all films are collaboration, and at some point you have to communicate your vision or the clarity of your own thought to another person.
Denis: That’s another problem for me. I am a very anxious and nervous person, so the people I work with on the script are scared of me a little. I am very confident on the set, but during script writing and pre-production, I’m not easy to work with. Not because I’m moody, but because I have a terrible fear that my easiness is my biggest drawback. I always want to do film like other people do. I always say that this is my last time; next time I will do it differently. It’s because there is such a weird and complex group of people, you have to give confidence to people. So, I don’t know, you have to be brave and very stubborn, and yet, keep things fragile.
iW: In this film and in “Trouble Every Day,” it seems that Paris itself is a major character. Would you agree?
Denis: People often tell me that. It started when I did “I Can’t Sleep.” During that film, while I was in the editing room, I felt everything collapse — my naivete, my good energy, completely collapsed. I was fighting against a monster. The city was very important, it was the main character and I was quite upset because I had fucked up the shooting completely. I wanted to run away from everything, from the editing, friends, Paris. But then after the film was edited everyone was telling me that Paris looked so great. So, when I did “Trouble Every Day,” instead of being very anxious about Paris, I knew I did it once, so I didn’t have to worry about doing it twice. So I never thought about Paris, except when I was writing the script.
iW: In this film, you make a very strong contrast between the outside and inside, between hot and cold.
Denis: Yes, that is very important.
iW: Is it what drives the film?
Denis: Yes. Laure doesn’t want to leave her apartment, but she has to go outside and she’s happy to be in her car, because at least it’s like her little house, it belongs to her. But then she has to sell the car, so it’s going to be an intrusion for her. Yeah, these distinctions were the engine for the movie. Especially when he drives her car, and she screams, and he leaves the car and she looks for him, and sees him through the bar window.
iW: I almost feel that if he were walking down the street and not in the bar she wouldn’t have gotten out. But because he was in another warm place, she had the courage to go out.
Denis: She’s afraid of cold.
iW: Is that what attracts her to him, that he makes her less afraid of the cold?
Denis: I think that someone who wants to be inside will not change, but she will keep looking for someone to be inside with her.
iW: You’ve collaborated with Agnes Godard on the last few films. How did you two begin working together?
Denis: We met as students, and we worked together on “Paris, Texas.” I was Wim Wenders’ assistant, and she was [cinematographer] Robert Muller’s assistant. We discussed film in general, but never about image. We discussed what makes cinema important for her and me. After 10 years of being together, we started to discuss film in terms of images. For instance, while you’re writing the script, without even knowing, you choose a relation to the film in terms of the lens. After she would read the script, she would say, “Would you think this is a film for a 40mm lens?” And I would tell her I was thinking of doing the whole thing in 100mm. But then the most important thing between her and me is to make decisions we feel are the right ones and not change that. So we paint or take still photographs or we do a test run on the street. People don’t understand the kind of testing Agnes and I do. We don’t use actors, just the scenery, because we want to understand the range. Once it’s done, we don’t discuss the image anymore — she trusts me to decide what works and what doesn’t. It’s never a competition about the style of image. It’s not necessary.