JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

As Galoup lies on a bed contemplating suicide, a vein on his bicep pulses to the tinny dance beat of Corona's "Rhythm of the Night."

Fallen from the code of the Legion as from the land of narrative, Galoup prepares for a solo breakdance in a mirrored nightclub.

Images from Vendredi soir

Vendredi soir is Denis’ take on the “brief encounter” subgenre: a gentle romance about a one-night stand that takes place during a 24-hour public transport strike in Paris.

The long introductory scene, with establishing shots of Parisian rooftops, apartment windows and motorways shot in dusky twilight, positions the film halfway between travelogue and urban fairytale.

Still frames capture the city of light with a painterly romanticism far removed from the jagged formal assaults of Beau travail.

Our protagonist is Laure (Valérie Lemercier), a thirtysomething middle-class Parisian woman who gets caught alone in a citywide traffic jam on her way to start a new life with her boyfriend.

Laure’s uncertainty over her impending lifestyle change is conveyed not through dialogue but a series of rhythmic visual strategies, such as this impressionistic superimposition of her old apartment over her face.

Stuck in traffic, she hears a radio DJ encouraging drivers to pick up commuters seeking refuge from the winter night.

A giant pair of neon blue spectacles blinking beside an optician’s shop window underscores the sense that Laure does not quite know what she is looking for in life.

Enter Jean (Vincent Lindon), a charismatic mystery man in a dark suit.

Strangers connecting in a sea of cars. We never find out what their jobs are, what kind of relationship Laure is in, or if Jean harbors any motivations beyond the physical.

Though she has quit smoking, Laure finds herself pleasurably enveloped in the warmth of Jean’s cigarette smoke on this freezing night.

 

Nor should we expect Denis to articulate the problem of desire within the linguistic bounds of traditional narrative cinema. And once narrative has failed us, what remains in life besides bodies in motion? Among many possible readings, Beau travail's much-debated closing scene can be interpreted as a spectacular catharsis of the failure of narrative and the simultaneous persistence of pure feeling. Galoup, now expelled from the Legion himself and failing to adjust to civilian life in Marseilles, lies on a bed with a gun in his hand, ostensibly contemplating suicide. Beside a tattoo of the Legion code on his chest – “Serve the good cause and die” – a vein on his bicep pulses to the tinny beat of Corona's gay house anthem “Rhythm of the Night.” Thus we are led into one of the most bizarrely exhilarating closing scenes in modern cinema, another of those episodes that occupy a psychic wasteland between flashback, hallucination, memory and dream: the sergeant alone in a nightclub and dressed in a dandyish black Fred Astaire outfit, which he had earlier worn in Djibouti; his reflection multiplied by a hall of diamond mirrors; fallen from the code of the Legion as from the land of narrative; breakdancing furiously.

This closing dance scene, which feels like the postscript to a musical from another planet, has no individual function within the film’s story-world. It is useless to try and reinscribe it within the laws of syntax by constructing a timeline of events, reassessing the spaces of action, or speculating upon location or costume changes. Its relation to what has come before is not discursive but symbolic, and its significance is not of the order of meaning but of vital import. Langer reminds us that music is

“a highly articulated sensuous object, which by virtue of its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is peculiarly unfit to convey. Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.” [31] [open endnotes in new window]

It is useless to try and reinscribe Beau travail’s closing scene within the laws of syntax by constructing a timeline of events, reassessing the spaces of action, or speculating upon location or costume changes – its significance is not narrative, but musical. The torrent of spastic action unleashed by Galoup's whirling, spinning body sensuously evokes the endurance of desire as the great unrepresentable of human language.

Like music, it is only as a complex whole that Beau travail makes sense. And more than any narrative considerations, the torrent of spastic action unleashed by Galoup's whirling, spinning body sensuously evokes the endurance of desire as the great unrepresentable of human language. Words fail us, feelings persist, and sometimes we have no choice but to trust our own strange rhythm.

Vendredi soir—the acoustic womb

“We begin to hear before we are born, four-and-a-half months after conception. From then on, we develop in a continuous and luxurious bath of sounds: the song of our mother’s voice, the swash of her breathing, the trumpeting of her intestines, the timpani of her heart.”
– Walter Murch [32]

With her 2002 film Vendredi soir, Claire Denis advanced her journey into the rhythmic landscapes of desire, reaching further towards a cinematic form that seeks to transcend the expressive limitations of words and vision. Upon first inspection, the film seems atypical territory for the director: a two-character romantic drama co-adapted with Emmanuèle Bernheim from the latter's novel about a one-night stand that takes place during a 24-hour public transport strike in Paris. Warm and gentle, the film unfolds in ordered chronological sequence and sustains a disarming minor key throughout. The lightness of its tone and subject matter are far removed from the dazzling subversions of Beau travail or L’intrus, films where Denis launches a far more direct assault upon cinema’s traditional discourses of narrative, form and spectatorship. Despite its favorable critical response upon release, Vendredi soir remains one of the less studied works in Denis’ canon. In fact it represents her most quietly radical experiment in film form to date.

Reflecting on a mode of vision that first gripped Western thought during the Scientific Revolution, Steven Connor explains how “the rationalized ‘Cartesian grid’ of the visualist imagination” [33] posits “the perceiving self as a single point of view,” a view “from which the exterior world radiates in regular lines.” [34] There is a certain pretension towards omniscience about a mode of looking which values the world as an external plane of space, something ready to be penetrated, fragmented, and assimilated by the human gaze. Traditional narrative cinema attains its illusionistic power through a similar pretension, a complex relay of editing and mise-en-scène where objects are represented as clear forms in deep space, actions are localized within the space, and stable patterns of relation are established between each element in the frame. In her book The Skin of the Film, Laura U. Marks characterizes this mode of spectatorship as “optical visuality,” a type of looking that necessarily stages a relationship of distance and separation between the viewing subject and the object of its vision. [35]

Optical looking lends itself usefully to the visualist functions of traditional narrative, but Marks feels there are also times

“when words, sounds, and images trap as much as they free: when giving expression to some things that are cinema’s proper territory prevents the expression of something else.” [36]

Drawing upon Gilles Deleuze’s time-image cinema and Henri Bergson’s model of multisensory perception, Marks promotes a theory of embodied spectatorship she terms haptic visuality – a mode of looking that closes the gap between subject and object by having “the eyes themselves function like organs of touch.” [37] In contrast to optical vision, whose function is to distinguish forms and establish meaningful connections between them, a haptic look engages the perception of the whole body by encouraging a dynamic interplay between the senses. The eyes move across the screen in search of texture, less concerned with narrative meaning than with the affective materiality of the image as something that means in itself. The haptic mode of looking is thus well equipped to process a cinema of pure form – a cinema towards which Claire Denis has increasingly tiptoed.

Between Beau travail and Vendredi soir, Denis startled critics by taking a grisly detour into the body horror sub-genre. Trouble Every Day was an exceptionally morose, nonlinear film about two people (Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle) stricken with a mysterious medical condition that, upon their sexual arousal, breeds a Cat People-style hunger for human flesh. Featuring long wordless passages punctuated by graphic bursts of sexual cannibalism, the film's genre trappings and metaphorical density allowed Denis to take an anthropological approach to the problem of desire. Its extreme (though non-pornographic) close-ups of copulating human bodies registered in an unusual manner: not as clear figurations or distinct forms, but as dislocated swatches that took several moments for the viewer to recognize and identify as muscle, hair or skin. As such, they created a haptic viewing experience in which the viewer’s eyes, denied the narrative movement provided by deep-space representation, assumed an intimate, caressing relationship to the surfaces and textures that filled the frame. Viewers were “more inclined to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze.” [38] And unlike its more acclaimed predecessor, Trouble Every Day featured no voiceover to lead the viewer – even if only astray – through its nightmares of the flesh. It was as though the failure of Galoup's narration in Beau travail had liberated Denis from hacking through useless thickets of verbal language. Coupled with Tindersticks' most minimal score to date, the effect was one of floating aimlessly, unmoored from any sense of perspective or spatio-temporal reality. Both the elimination of voiceover and haptic treatment of bodies in flagrante delicto were carried forward to her next film, though with very different results. 

Vendredi soir tells the story of Laure (Valérie Lemercier), a thirty-something middle-class Parisian woman who gets caught alone in a citywide traffic jam on her way to start a new life with her boyfriend. Quietly anxious over her impending lifestyle change, she is emboldened by a strange voice from her car radio encouraging drivers to pick up commuters seeking refuge from the winter night. Acting on a whim, she extends her charity to Jean (Vincent Lindon), a charismatic mystery man in a dark suit; with only a handful of words exchanged, they share a tender brief encounter. We never find out what their jobs are, what kind of relationship Laure is in, or if Jean harbors any motivations beyond the physical. Nor are we granted any insight into what their respective pasts or futures hold, though we never labor under the illusion that they have a future together. The absence of exposition means that Denis' focus is again neither moral nor psychological, but experiential. She wants us to inhabit Laure's subjective experience of the night, which is transient, uncensored and precious. [39]

The sights and sounds of Laure’s world are rendered with the kind of skin-like intimacy that necessarily invokes a haptic viewing experience. Without clusters of dialogue, the film unfurls as a proliferation of textures and surfaces, sensations and details that form impressionistic insights into our heroine’s psyche. Over the course of the film, Laure indulges a few optical flights of whimsy that speak to the bittersweet magic-realism she sees in the world around her. Letters on a car number-plate reconstitute themselves; a lampshade flies across the room, attaches itself to a light bulb and switches itself on; the arrangement of olives and anchovies on a pizza assumes the appearance of a face, which then smiles at her. While these fleeting visual projections are rendered with optical clarity, their lack of innate meaning ensures that our engagement with them is not a cognitive response to the causal chain of narrative but a tactile identification with an ephemeral gesture. Marks explains that haptic cinema calls upon the viewer’s private storehouse of intuitions, perceptions and sense-associations to fill in the narrative blanks and feel our way through the film. Depending on our individual memory banks, these images might suggest that Laure is prone to unsatisfied, nostalgic yearnings for the impulsive spontaneity of childhood, when object relations answered to their own logic and everything felt possible. If this is the case, we may also surmise that she nurtures a buried romantic streak that still believes, against her better judgment, in the possibility of finding Prince Charming in a traffic jam.

The visual strategies through which Denis constructs the rhythms of Vendredi soir are recognizable to those familiar with her aesthetic. She employs suitably impressionistic lighting and a color palette that shifts from grainy desaturation to flashes of luminescence. There are dreamy dissolves and superimpositions, compositions that alternate between deep and shallow focus, and instances of slow motion so understated that they register less as camera tricks than as subliminal, first-person impressions. There are also fleeting moments of what Adrian Martin has termed “poetic undoing,” a dissemination of interstitial shots that are detached from Laure’s consciousness and the spatio-temporal reality of our story-world – a lone woman walking along an empty road; Paris reduced to the harsh blur of a street lamp; the empty space of Laure’s deserted apartment. [40] The import of these lyrical apparitions is again purely sensual and symbolic rather than functional in any narrative sense. Taken collectively, the jazz-like variations of mood and tempo trigger unexpected overlaps and correspondences within the viewer’s perceptual field, encouraging him or her to surrender the optical mastery associated with narrative and instead assume a pleasurably haptic relationship to the screen.

As with Beau travail, sound plays a crucial role in drawing us into the rhythms of lived experience. Denis frequently switch-hits between lulling the viewer into cavernous aural spaces and spitting him/her back out into auditory self-awareness. The long intro scene, with establishing shots of Parisian rooftops, apartment windows and motorways shot in dusky twilight and set to Hinchliffe's ethereal main theme, positions the film halfway between travelogue and urban fairytale. Our dreamy illusion is rudely interrupted by the excoriating sound of Laure rolling a strip of masking tape over cardboard boxes as she hesitantly packs up her possessions. There is a similar dynamic shift a while later, when Laure briefly slips away from Jean's disarming in-car seduction to telephone a friend who is expecting her for dinner. In this scene, the screeching cry of the friend's baby on the other end of the line (again, a naturalistic sound effect that is miked up higher than usual in films) serves to auditize the very commitment fears Laure wants to escape on this fateful Friday night.

While such moments expand upon Beau travail's exploration of unsettling auditory contrasts, Denis' chief sonic concern in this film is the illusion of silence. Vendredi soir often turns the sound down so low that it is left to Hinchliffe's lush, twinkly score to remind us that we are not watching a silent film. Of course, what we generally regard as silence in a contemporary film are simply those moments bereft of spoken dialogue, diegetic or soundtrack music, or large-scale sound effects. One of the more subversive qualities of Vendredi soir is the manner in which its audio track is furnished with an intricate layer of micro-sounds from start to finish: rather than a silent film, it is a subliminally noisy one. Several moments initially translate as silent or near silent due to their absence of dialogue, music, or action-based, plot-propelling sound effects. Yet even on a passive viewing, we subconsciously absorb the bustling undergrowth of sonic flora and fauna Denis locates in such moments – the mild breeze of the urban night, the faint click-clack of Laure's high heels as she walks along a quiet curb, the hum of distant traffic when Laure and Jean find themselves on a ghostly backstreet. [41] While Marks’ chief concern lies with the tactile properties of the image, she also acknowledges the haptic potential of sound in forming an embodied and multisensory viewing experience:

“Of course we cannot literally touch sound with our ears, just as we cannot touch images with our eyes; but as vision can be optical or haptic, so too hearing can perceive the environment in a more or less instrumental way. We listen for specific things, while we hear ambient sound as an undifferentiated whole. One might call “haptic hearing”that usually brief moment when all sounds present themselves to us undifferentiated, before we make the choice of which sounds are most important to attend to.” [42]

If Marks considers all sounds haptic until they resolve into aural clarity, there are other theorists for whom hearing is an innately haptic experience. The music therapist Edith Lecourt, who writes of the “subjective ear noises” [43] of deaf patients prone to auditory hallucinations of distant choirs and disembodied voices, defines hearing as “a veritable acoustic womb” [44] that envelops us from birth to death:

“Sound reaches us from everywhere, it surrounds us, goes through us.” [45]

Given that we cannot ever pinpoint its location in space, confine its operation to our ears alone, or hear it for the same functional purposes that we do in mainstream cinema, sound is unusually well adapted to haptic representation. Connor suggests that

“our vulnerability to the alterity of sound – or of sound as the sign of alterity – is vulnerability to the doubled self of the man-made; man-made sound emanates from ‘us’, but assails and pervades us from an enigmatically indefinite ‘out there’” [46]

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