Otherness

11/09/02 Film Essay # , , ,

Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (2002)

Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (2002)
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Claire Denis (screenplay), Emmanuèle Bernheim (novel)
Stars: Valérie Lemercier, Vincent Lindon, Hélène de Saint-Père

 

“Obscure but worth it. Seriously beautiful, incredibly sexy; a global gift of love from the French. Every woman – of any age – can use a Sir Gallahad to step forward on a cold and wet Friday Night, throw his coat across her jammed up state of mind and free her spirit so she can run with a smile into the next phase of her life.”

As the camera pans across rooftops of apartments in downtown Paris, it could be any large city. Millions of people entering a busy weekend – coming home from work, getting together for dinner or, as in the case of the young woman in Friday Night, packing up an apartment to move in with her lover. Laure has obviously spent the day sorting through her belongings, deciding what to keep and what to throw out. Two older women in her building peruse her trash, commenting on the pretty, girly things she’s discarding. Laure’s tired, straining to get finished. Finally, seeming a bit rushed, she jumps in the shower, changes clothes, and rushes to her car to make dinner at a friend’s house. The movers are due early the next morning.

As Laure quickly fluffs her wet hair in the heater of her car, a stranger taps on the window and asks for a ride. She refuses, locking her doors. His attempt adds to her distress. As she drives out of her building, she remembers there’s a transit strike, stops to phone her lover and let him know that she’ll still be there the next day. But she speaks with no enthusiasm. In a way that may be particularly French, Laure’s emotional state is reflected in an event affecting the whole city. Paris is at a standstill. Public transportation workers have gone on strike and everyone, like Laure, is stranded in a state of in-between.

Laure’s car moves at a snail’s pace in bumper to bumper traffic. Pedestrians are stranded, walking miles in wet freezing cold streets. Ah, we get it. Laure is leaving her single life, leaving her “I” to become a “We” – and she feels every bit as stuck, caught if you will, in a traffic jam of emotional distress. She feels the sacrifice of leaving her old life – her own choices and her idiosyncrasies – all mixed up with the anticipation of sharing, caring and building a life with a partner. There’s loss as well as gain. There’s anxiety about embracing the new, leaving the familiar and the free. Those cute lampshades she put out for the trash symbolize the loss of the frivolous, the sacrifice of a lightness of being.

Sitting in her car, out of control — going, going, going but slowly, slowly, slowly — Friday Night cinematically surrounds Laure in a dreamlike state of beauty. Exhausted, she literally struggles to keep her eyes open. She turns on the radio, listening to an announcer encourage drivers to take pity on people stranded in the cold by the strike and give them a ride. This time, when another stranger taps on her window, she lets him in. The brief introduction of first names only – “Laure, Jean” – belies her fear, second thoughts and more than a little distrust. Picking up a stranger is out of character for her. Jean, on the other hand, exudes a certain ease, confidence of character although he explains nothing, gives no reassurance and, seemingly, is heading nowhere in particular. He’s glad to be out of the cold, even though he’s going slower in her car than he would have on foot. This could be a dream.

As time passes, Laure feels challenged by the stranger’s presence. In one moment, Laure does in fact fall asleep. Then, she jolts awake, fearing what the stranger may have done. But she finds everything exactly the same. A critical point occurs when Laure has to leave her car to telephone her friends to tell them that the traffic is hopeless and she won’t make it for dinner. After the phone call, she panics. She can’t find her car, feeling certain Jean’s driven off and stolen it. She runs in the cold without her coat, looking for the car and talking to herself. In fact, she’s running in the wrong direction. Jean comes after her, gets her back safely into the warmth of the car. Now he’s at the wheel. He backs up with wild abandon – presumably on the other side of the street but actually into an open lane that could not possibly exist but – to our great relief – extricates them from the jam. But he’s defeated by her relentless distrust and calls it a night. He parks the car on a side street, walking away and leaving her on her own.

As Laure stands alone in the empty street, she faces a choice. Lampshade or packing boxes. On a whim, Laure follows Jean into a diner where he is on the verge of picking up another young woman. Instead, without a word spoken, their eyes meet and they understand each other. If he is not with her, he will be with someone else. If she doesn’t go with him, she will not get out of her jam. They are destined to cross through this Friday Night together.

The rest of Friday Night treats viewers to some of the most beautiful lovemaking to be found on an American movie screen today, yesterday and tomorrow. And, amazingly speaking, the first time they don’t even take off their clothes. ‘How many times’ blurs into endless pleasure. Possessiveness, control and concern melt into the moment. They’ve taken a room in a hotel, price reduced to accommodate people caught by the strike. But it’s off the beaten path and almost vacant. As Laure walks down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night wrapped in Jean’s coat and socks, she feels herself separate and lovely, exploring the delicious sensations of being alone within a man’s essence. Both worlds of experience exist simultaneously. We imagine her discovering a sense of herself as an individual that cannot be taken away from her. He sleeps while she wanders. He’s there when she returns. She slips back into bed. The morning has been decided. Her crisis resolved, we see the first smile on her face since we met her the night before.

Have I – somehow – left you with even an inkling of the stunning beauty with which Friday Night is filmed? If not, imagine standing on a cold, wet street in Paris – while simultaneously warm and comfy in your movie seat – watching cigarette smoke curling up and out of an ever so slightly open car window into the blurry glow of old-fashioned streetlights. This goes on and on…one incredibly beautiful shot after beautiful shot. Friday Night may be slow but when it’s over, you too will have a smile on your face. Very French. Viva la globalization of love.

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19/09/01 Film Essay # , , ,

No Man’s Land (2001)

No Man’s Land (2001)
Director: Danis Tanovic
Writer: Danis Tanovic
Stars: Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Sovagovic

 

“NO MAN’S LAND tells you everything you never wanted to know about war, making you shake your fist at the sky and shout ‘there’s got to be a better way’.”

No Man’s Land may be subtitled but it is by no means foreign in the conventional sense of the word. Bosnian writer-director Denis Tanovic’s winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign film and favored nominee for an Oscar asks a question close to the bone. “Why war?” What’s war got to do with the problems we face coming together as a world of neighbors?

I’m hoping, of all the films you have an opportunity to see this Oscar season, that you will seek out No Man’s Land. There is no other film so relevant to the challenges of getting along in today’s world. Clearly, foreign no longer means distant. No Man’s Land may take place halfway around the world in the fields of Bosnia but its enemies are neighbors. They know each other. The two men caught in the film’s ‘no man’s land’ —— a trench between enemy lines —— speak each other’s language!

That’s funny. Oddly, No Man’s Land is funny. It may be the funniest, real war film you’ve ever seen. But beware, humor has a way of opening us up, taking us deeper and deeper into the true emotional core of something we don’t like to look at too closely. From the film’s opening scenes of a Bosnian relief squad lost in a fog following a guide who doesn’t know where he’s going, we chuckle along with the soldiers at the absurdity of it all. As day dawns, we’re amused for a moment to find the Bosnians still lost, blinded this time by the sun, scratching their heads wondering where they are. Then we find them —— in the crosshairs of Serbian guns. Blam, swivel and find. Blam, aim and fire. We are stunned to see single shots kill Bosnians like rabbits in the grass. Background the humor, horror leaves us shaking our heads in despair, holding back tears of wonder and frustration.

Then we drop in behind Serbian and Bosnian front line troops complying with a certified cease-fire. The gift of No Man’s Land is its ability to open our hearts to a simple fact. Nice, normal, ordinary human beings kill and get killed in wars. We experience more amusement as we observe neither side wanting to deal with the murders that just took place due to bad luck and bad rules. Serbian soldiers hang back not wanting to risk their own lives checking out whether the Bosnians they’ve shot are dead. The Bosnian soldiers decide to simply wait to see if “anything changes…see if the dead walk” as they put it. It’s a cease-fire after all. See what I mean, funny in an odd sort of way. Neighbors killing each other without any real desire to do so.

Through a set of circumstances best left discovered by seeing the film, a Bosnian and Serb end up together in a trench dividing the two front lines with a third Bosnian lying atop a spring-loaded helicopter mine. All three are wounded. This ‘No Man’s Land’ incident gives rise to a drama that —— if it weren’t so tragic —— would have you laughing in the aisles. Perhaps the last film to broach this level of absurdity in war was Catch 22. No one knows what to do. No one wants to rock the boat. No one wants to act. In order to wave white rags of truce, Serb and Bosnian strip to their skivvies to avoid being identified by either side and shot. Ironically, both sides react with heavy fire and bombing!

To whom can these men appeal, we might wonder? Both sides want these men to disappear because they represent a violation of the cease-fire. In peacetime, no one wants to be accused of pulling a gun. In frustration, a French UN peacekeeper acts against orders from headquarters to sit tight, moving in to offer help. But when he arrives at the trench, he finds a situation virtually unsolvable by ordinary means. The global press moves in, waves a flag of its own and leaves the true issue untouched. Our only hope lies with the two men who speak the same language. We long for the intimacy that has developed between the two men to prevail, rising above the madness of rules, regulations and contrived enmities. For heaven’s sake, they’ve shared the same girlfriend before the war. But oddly, now, help is straining their relationship to the breaking point.

One man holds out hope that the other will form an alliance with him, see that they are in this together. He believes there’s a solution in sticking together in spite of their differences. Two men against the world. But the other feels sure that there is no way out. Only personal survival counts. He takes no side, trying to hide inside the shadow of authority. They betray each other, each in their own turn desperately taking matters into their own hands and making matters worse. Although it would be easy, even just, to assign blame for what happens to a lack of trust, that’s fundamental to war. The culprit in No Man’s Land is the fact of ‘no man’s land’ as an area beyond will, force or logic. If ever there were a time to shake one’s fist at the skies and cry…or cry out, this is it.

As I sat waiting for the next film to show after “No Man’s Land” at the Telluride Film Festival, a man approached from my left looking for his seat to my right. At the same time, a man a few seats to my right decided to go for popcorn. They met just at my knees. Each looked the other in the eye with clear intent that they had the right of way. Pulling my knees in as far as possible didn’t help. But all of a sudden, we started to laugh. We recognized where we were. We were caught in ‘no man’s land’. The popcorn man backed up, taking his seat so the other could pass. Unfortunately, there’s no backing up in “No Man’s Land”. Only forward motion was considered acceptable, resulting in something worse than no motion at all.

When knowing —— even caring about “the other” —— fails to prevent stupidity, defensiveness and denial of responsibility, we must all give thought to what it really, really means to be at war and also, how intimate war is. What’s left behind in “No Man’s Land” when the credits roll and the lights go up leaves a brain twister that doesn’t go away easily. “What would I have done?” or better yet, What could I have done?”

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