Claire Denis’ Vendredi soir (2002) is the director’s most intimate character portrait. Emmanuèle Bernheim adapted her novel into a screenplay in collaboration with Denis with an emphasis on the interiority of the main character Laure (Valérie Lemercier). This creates interruptions in the narrative proper for brief “daydream” sequences that are totally the province of Laure’s own consciousness. Otherwise the film focuses on Laure’s Friday night before she moves in with her boyfriend on Saturday.
The first half of Vendredi soir charts Laure’s activities up until she picks up Jean (Vincent Lindon) in her car while in a traffic jam. This section of the film is practically silent. Everything is conveyed with images. Laure finishes packing her apartment, attempts to drive to her friend’s house for dinner, gets got in a traffic jam caused by a public transit strike and picks up Jean. These simple narrative beats are expanded with long sequences of visual poetry composed of casual observations consisting of the most singular yet minimal signifiers. Denis and long time cinematographer Agnès Godard effectively map out Laure’s character by showing the viewer Laure doing the most commonplace things. Laure becomes totally tangible in our minds, an avatar through which the viewer re-lives these common experiences.
Once Laure picks up Jean the tone doesn’t change as one would expect. Denis treats Jean like some sort of mystery which is precisely what he represents to Laure. The duo get coffee, they drive around, they get a hotel, they make love, they eat pizza, they spend the night together then Laure runs home. Again these simple beats are expounded upon with cutaways and inserts of what feel like minor details but somehow manage to convey momentous truths about these kinds of hookups. It’s simple, lyrical, but never romantic. Denis is too matter of fact about the proceedings for any hint of traditional drama to sneak into the film.
Even Laure’s daydreams are so well connected into the visual complex of the film that they don’t register as fantasy. These moments reiterate the excitement of the unknown for Laure and for us the audience. Be it a car’s insignia, Jean’s sexual proclivities, or Laure’s apartment in her absence, each of these segues into Laure’s mind is so typically human that there’s almost nothing dreamy about them.
Vendredi soir isn’t even really about Laure. Denis’ film is about the experience of a Friday night. A fantastic Friday night that happens only a handful of times in one’s life. Vendredi soir is exactly what the title suggests. It is a filmic record of a feeling in a time and place that is at our collective disposal.