The arrestingly physical poetry of 1999’s “Beau Travail” showed Claire Denis’ skill at coaxing eloquence from images over words. While devotees may find the same rewards in her new feature, “Friday Night,” others will be merely exasperated by the director’s mannered narrative minimalism. Played out against the backdrop of Paris in chaos, the almost wordless, plotless drama offers that staple of recent French cinema — semi-anonymous sex — here serving as an antidote to commitment anxiety and providing an oasis of warmth and comfort in a cold, uncertain world. Post-festival commercial prospects appear skimpy.
Unfolding over a single winter night during which a public transport strike has brought Paris to a virtual standstill, the action starts as Laure (Valerie Lemercier) finishes packing up her apartment. Movers are due early next morning to transport her belongings to the home of her partner. Laure’s pre-cohabitation trepidation manifests itself in quiet ways as she heads for dinner with friends.
Getting into her car and crawling along streets choked with traffic and commuters stranded like refugees, Laure initially kills time listening to the radio or flipping through books. Before long, however, she starts observing the city around her as a stranger, giving these unsettling, claustrophobic scenes an almost anthropological feel. Her attention fixes on passerby Jean (Vincent Lindon), whose air of calm and relaxation contrasts with the frustration and tension of everyone around him.
This intriguing, if somewhat attenuated, setup then gives way to less interesting developments as Jean steps into the car, accepting a lift to no particular destination. Laure’s initial awkwardness with the self-assured stranger begins to dissolve until he takes the wheel, unnerving her by speeding down a series of side-streets. But the wheels of attraction are already in motion. After a cafe interlude — occasioning one of the film’s rare moments of humor when Laure realizes Jean has been buying condoms — they kiss.
Remaining events bear a resemblance to those of 1999 feature “Une Liaison pornographique,” as the couple checks into a hotel for a night of love, interrupted by a ploddingly related dinner interval. Their sexual union is characterized first with urgent, fumbling embraces in the drab, underheated room, then later with romance and a sense of security as they tenderly undress.
The actors express little tangible emotion, and dialogue is spartan, leaving d.p. Agnes Godard’s clingy, prowling camera to do most of the talking. Denis takes occasional detours into Laure’s imagined scenarios and often superimposes moments from one scene over another. There’s undeniable filmmaking craftsmanship on display, and audiences attuned to this unmistakably French style may respond to the drama’s microscopic intimacy and semblance of real-time action. But to the majority, this will seem an annoyingly precious exercise in self-conscious art that feels like a backwards step for the director at this stage in her career.