JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The travelling companions’ encounter is abruptly cut short when, blinded by sensory overload, she demands that he stop the car and let her out.

The film becomes charged with desire. Having reconciled at a nearby café, Laure and Jean brush past each other in slow motion on the stairs.

Laure and Jean give in to their desire as they kiss on the street.

Moving to a drab hotel room, they embrace like lifelong lovers.

The subliminal burble of the space heater now assumes the sonic role of the car engine, supplying the film with an ambient ghost of mechanical rhythm.

Laure and Jean enjoy a late supper at an Italian restaurant, though a request to hurry their food order and the bickering of a couple at a nearby table suggests the return of the social world.

Laure’s pizza reflects her rapture by smiling back at her.

Jean cradles Laure on the street as the stroke of midnight heralds a Cinderella-like fall to earth.

Laure slips away in the middle of the night, leaving Jean the car as a gift to remember her by.

 

Laure in Vendredi soir is confronted with the same tensions between optical and auditory modes of experience that terrorized Galoup in Beau travail. On three occasions in the first 35 minutes, she is shown rubbing her fists to her eyes in a combination of sleepiness and disillusionment. The sense that she does not quite know what she is looking for in life is underscored when she first lays eyes on Jean, framed as a gauzy dissolve from a giant pair of neon blue spectacles blinking beside an optician’s shop window. Later, after phoning her friend to cancel dinner, she loses her bearings and briefly panics that he has absconded with her car and belongings. “Have you seen my car?”she incredulously asks a fellow driver; “It was just here.” (The man’s response is predictably sarcastic: “In front of me? And you can't find it. It must've flown off.” )

Unwittingly sparking a battle of wills, Jean attempts to navigate out of the traffic jam by taking the wheel and speeding down a backstreet. Laure, still uncertain whether she wants to surrender control to this seductive stranger, passively surveys life from the passenger seat.
Urban tableau flies past the window, a time-travelling blur of neon lights, buildings and shop-fronts. Laure's vision, chronicled through choppy, dislocated framings of Jean's hands on the wheel, is rendered haptic by the speed at which they travel.

The sensory conflicts of the film’s first half climax in an odd, ambiguous scene that inadvertently brings their romantic dilemma to boiling point. Unwittingly sparking a battle of wills, Jean attempts to navigate out of the traffic jam by taking the wheel and powering the car down a backstreet. Laure, still uncertain whether she wants to surrender control to this seductive stranger, passively surveys life from the passenger seat. Urban tableau flies past the window, a time-travelling blur of neon lights, buildings and shop-fronts as Bernard Herrmann-esque strings saw and chop anxiously on the soundtrack. Laure's vision, chronicled up close in choppy, dislocated framings of Jean's hands and collar, has become seriously compromised, reflecting “the unsteadiness of the ways of looking and seeing characteristic of city life – the glance or the glimpse rather than the sustained gaze.”[47] [open endnotes in new window] Blinded by sensory overload, she demands that her travelling companion stop the car and let her out.

The scene expresses a common condition of the postmodern urban consciousness, where “the molestations of vision brought about by urban experience” [48] inevitably lead to a psychic loss of control, and with it an alienating sense of suspicion about the accuracy of visual knowledge. Denis now cements the visualist critique by self-consciously drawing our attention to the haptic role that sound is playing in this drama. We may not be specifically aware of the car engine humming in the background, but its low rumble has functioned as a sympathetic vibration through the first half of the film, lulling us into a warm envelope of mechanical sound as surely as Grégoire Colin drifts to sleep to the rhythm of his coffee percolator in Nénette et Boni. The occasional metronomic ticking of the indicator brings an extra note of musicality to the mix.

Following Laure's demand to stop the car, Jean makes an abrupt exit, and his erstwhile companion, confused and regretful, moves to switch off the ignition. As long as the engine is running, there is a feeling that this dalliance could go somewhere, but as the ignition fizzles out, we feel a bassy pulse leaving our innards. Hence the scene forms a lo-fi epiphany in the middle of the film, louding our sensitivity to Denis' haptic treatment of micro-sound in physical space. As viewers, our body has become both Laure's body and the car's body, so the sense of deflated hope when Jean leaves the womb-like interior hits surprisingly hard. [49]

Just as the rhythmic structure of Beau travail was articulated to the viewer as a formal symbol of human emotion, Vendredi soir appeals to progressively deeper planes of psychic engagement through its tactile complex of image and sound. Because haptic cinema blurs the dynamic boundaries between the viewing subject and the object of its vision, it necessarily appeals to raw, embodied perception and a more intuitive, vulnerable mode of spectatorship than is possible within traditional narrative. In this regard, Marks has spoken of the propensity for haptic media to invoke the mimetic faculty of a viewer’s perception. She defines mimesis (from the Greek mimeisthai – “to imitate”) as a type of artistic representation “based on a particular, material contact at a particular moment.” [50] Mimetic art has the power to reactivate our forgotten sense-experiences by assuming their material form and reinscribing their presence within our bodies. In doing so, it can bring us into direct contact with the indexical traces of our own lost memories:

“We move between seeing the object, recalling virtual images that it brings to mind, and comparing the virtual object thus created with the one before us. This viewing process reactivates a viewer’s complex of memory-images at the same time that it creates the object for perception.” [51]

Our eyes caress the frame as Jean undresses Laure. Subjectivity is expressed through intimate but dislocated close-ups of body parts – a common figuration of haptic cinema. The love scene assumes the aspect of caretaking and fetal embrace as Jean’s fingers dance over Laure’s skin.
As with Denis’ previous film Trouble Every Day, fragments of flesh are shot so close-up that it is often difficult to distinguish which body part occupies the frame at any given moment. But where the sex scenes in that film descended into nightmares, this one plays out as a pleasant dream. Laure returns the compliment by paying attention to Jean’s feet. She wonders if a blister on his heel led him to seek refuge in her car.
Vendredi soir features the cinema’s most purely haptic love scene to date – an audiovisual poem of surfaces, textures and sensations that the viewer comes to experience as a flash of infant memory. The grainy, under-lit flatness of the love scene is not merely a haptic signifier of primordial infant vision, but an attempt to mimetically re-immerse the viewer in that first bath of sound and touch which, once lost, is gone forever.

Denis pushes the mimetic capacity of haptic cinema to its fullest potential in Vendredi soir’s love scene. The minor miracle of this sequence is not that it is almost wordless, or that it lasts seven minutes, or even that it feels far more romantic than one would expect from a depiction of a one-night stand in a low-rent hotel room. Rather it is the manner in which the viewer’s pretenses toward a distant, optical identification with the screen are renounced by a visual set-up that uncannily evokes the sensation of slipping into a dream. The surface plane of the screen is flattened, the framing is de-centered, the focus is fuzzy and shallow, the colors are bleached into different shades of sepia and gray, and the lighting is so underexposed that large portions of the screen are blacked out. As with Trouble Every Day, fragments of flesh are shot so close-up that it becomes difficult to distinguish which body part occupies the frame at any given moment. Where the sexual assignations in that film ended in horrifying violence, this one sustains its weightless state of grace. Optical vision is debased so that other senses can flourish: we are informed of the blister on Jean's foot, the smell of rubber on Laure's hands after opening a condom; we warm to the sparse minutiae of the hotel room and the golden glow of the space heater, whose subliminal burble now assumes the duty of the car engine in supplying an ambient ghost of mechanical rhythm. Our eyes caress the frame as Jean undresses Laure, fingers dancing over her skin, arms cradling her in a fetal embrace while Hinchliffe’s score swells around them like a womb. The only reason none of this feels voyeuristic is because Denis’ haptic form has so thoroughly activated the mimetic response: it feels like it is happening to us.

The mode of psychic engagement proposed by Vendredi soir powerfully evokes the French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu’s theory of the skin ego, in which nine metaphorical psychic functions are attributed to the human skin. One of the earliest of these functions is a so-called “acoustic envelope,” wherein the newborn infant develops the illusion of being fused with its mother in a two-way skin. This skin is experienced not in terms of sight, but as a luxurious bath of sound and touch. As Steven Connor explains,

“The skin ego is formed from, and remains powerfully associated with, sensory impressions which are previsual or at best weakly visual. We may surmise that the skin ego comes into being in the infant's early attempts to perpetuate or recreate the conditions obtaining in the womb, in which its existence is organized almost wholly in terms of taste, touch and hearing, and in particular a powerful combination of the last two.” [52]

At this stage of the infant’s development there is no clear demarcation between tactile and auditory sensations, so the feeling of being embraced by the mother is experienced through the enveloping warmth of her voice. With a little luck, this same warmth can be metaphorically “revived in the experience of [sexual] love, in which each, holding the other in their arms, envelops the other while being enveloped by them.” [53] In this context, we may appreciate the grainy, under-lit flatness of Vendredi soir’s love scene as not merely a haptic signifier of primordial infant vision, but an attempt to mimetically re-immerse the viewer in that first bath of sound and touch which, once lost, is gone forever. The sense of psychic revelation induced by the mimetic mode of spectatorship also supports Susanne Langer’s thesis that non-narrative art forms appeal to our intuitive knowledge of the inner life, and thus have the power to generate those moments of sudden understanding “which the mind reads in a flash, and preserves in a disposition or an attitude.” [54]

Laure briefly experiences psychic re-immersion with Jean, but the mundane reality of the social world bursts their bubble of post-coital bliss: a snooty bellboy talks too much; a restaurant waiter asks them to hurry their food order; a couple bickers at a nearby table. They enjoy another sexual encounter in the bathroom, but the stroke of midnight heralds a Cinderella-like fall to earth. Their third attempt at lovemaking, back at the hotel, is a non-starter. Laure, suddenly turned off by Jean’s touch, pushes his body away, and he falls asleep.

The superimposed memory of their lovemaking provides all the dialogue they need. The couple enjoys another brief encounter in the bathroom.

She slips away in the middle of the night, leaving Jean the car as a sentimental gift. Against the blue dawn of the street, her pace quickens. She has not been devastated by her night with him, but it has left her a little different, and as Connor notes, the “birth into difference accomplished in and through the skin is also a birth into vision.” [55] Running faster now, Laure passes another pair of neon blue spectacles by an optician’s shop window; this pair, however, do not blink. Comfortable in her skin, at ease in her environment, Laure smiles radiantly as the fairytale theme twinkles around her for the last time. [56]

Our pleasure at the ending of Vendredi soir consists in witnessing Laure’s desire being gently satisfied where Galoup’s was cruelly, indefinitely deferred in Beau travail. Words are still few and far between, but for once we see a Claire Denis character making the transition from a vision that mutilates and degrades the other senses into one that harmonically integrates them in a new democracy. The fact that this happy ending sheds light on the film’s dormant Cinderella subtext only underscores the painful elusiveness of that transition for the rest of us. In this regard, there are obvious limitations to the mimetic response induced by a haptic viewing experience. Yet the specific constellations of sound, touch and image that constitute a Denis film means that to watch one is to surrender ourselves for a few hours to a strange fugue state, somewhere between a waking trance and a lucid dream. Beau travail proposes a cinematic form that shatters the laws of narrative in order to articulate the rhythms of the psyche. Vendredi soir presents us with the gift of being suspended, weightless and afloat, in a cocoon of amniotic fluid. In both cases, Denis seems to be giving us a chance to start over.

Against the blue dawn of the street, her pace quickens. Laure runs past another pair of neon blue spectacles by an optician’s shop window; this pair, however, do not blink.
A future with Jean was never on the cards. Instead their Friday night has functioned as a fleeting return to infant subjectivity, and a gentle birth into vision. Comfortable in her skin, at ease in her environment, Laure smiles radiantly as the fairytale theme twinkles around her for the last time.

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