SAN FRANCISCO – Claire Denis puts down the cell phone, smiling at the coincidence.
“Speaking of the wolf!” Denis says as she hangs up on Jim Jarmusch. And in fact, we were. Those lessons she learned in the 1980’s, when she was assistant to Jarmusch on “Down By Law” and to Wim Wenders on “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire” are evident once again with “Friday Night,” a quirky, moody romantic comedy-drama that opened in the United States on May 23.
For a moment, Denis brightens up. She’s very tired – a very hectic travel schedule is ending at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and she’s killing time before it’s time to hitch a ride to the airport. Initially, she had planned to visit Jarmusch in New York, but now she’d like to fly back to Paris. Still, she’s disappointed not to be able to see him on this trip across the Atlantic, and she talks of the debt she owes he and Wenders.
“They were very personal,” Denis recalls. “They were not prisoners of technique. They were not too much theoretical. They were curious, both of them. They trust images, I think, both of them, which is not often enough in filmmaking.”
“At that time,” she says, gesturing out the plate glass window at one part of the gorgeous city view, “I would have swam to Alcatraz for Jarmusch.”
We are high up in a suite on the famous Fairmont hotel, where 23 floors below the United Nations was born. The charter was written in a ballroom shortly after the end of World War II. Fitting, as Denis is basically a citizen of the world.
Born and raised in Africa, the daughter of civil servants. French passport, but doesn’t really consider Paris home. Assistant to iconoclastic independent directors, one German, the other American. She thought of the idea for her first film, “Chocolat” (1988), while on location with Wenders in Texas. You see, she thought Texas reminded her of Africa.
“If you have a tendency to be a day-dreamer and to gaze at things and fill a blank with music – you know I do the same with sound,” Denis says. “I’m a very lazy person. I’m not joking! I am like a sponge. I trust what I feel, and my intuition and the feeling that comes from sound and from sight. Maybe I’m passive in a way.”
“Film is a transition between passivity and point of view.”
The heroine of “Friday Night” is a woman in transition. At the beginning of the film, boxes are piled up. Laure (Valerie Lemercier) is moving from her apartment, across town to her boyfriend’s apartment. Her feelings aren’t apparent, but for a few hours, at least, as she navigates her car through a traffic jam caused by a Paris transit strike, she is a free woman – floating, homeless.
She offers a ride to a ruffled, suave fellow walking on the sidewalk. Like Laure, Jean (Vincent Lindon) doesn’t seem to have a goal or purpose – but for the moment, the mutual kindness between strangers will do.
Like Denis’ gorgeous return to Africa, “Beau Travail” (2001), the film’s real objectives lie deep within the souls of the characters – an interior film placed within an exquisite visual setting. Dialogue is sparse.
“I wanted something simple: A man, a woman, one or two locations in a short period of time,” Denis says, explaining her attraction to Emmanuele Bernheim’s novel, “Vendredi Soir.”
“It’s full of detail, observation and noise. When I finished this script, there was so little dialogue that I was afraid. Emmanuele was not worried, and then I told her ‘I am going to write a voice over,’ but after 4 days of working on the voiceover, I found it ridiculous. This isn’t filmmaking; it’s a monologue. So I stopped. Both actors had no problem; they felt they had enough dialogue.”
Once again working with cinematographer Agnes Godard, Denis wanted “Friday Night” to look good – but not overwhelm the characters, who must remain front and center.
“When I was making ‘Beau Travail’ I was very much afraid of this,” Denis says. “When I took (Godard) on location, she was amazed by the splendor of the landscape. I told her, ‘Don’t believe you’re going to film that. The film is about the scale of these men within the landscape, so there won’t be a shot of the landscape. Only the men AND the landscape.”
And so it is in “Friday Night,” which is wonderfully insightful, meditative – almost symphonic in it’s brisk 90 minutes.
It’s an obvious metaphor perhaps, but still, as this small, 53-year-old Frenchwoman stands, her ride almost ready, one is struck by the receding scale of the San Francisco skyline behind this most individual of filmmakers.