A traffic jam to remember

'Friday Night' is part poem, part love song

As the summer's car-chase count rises every week, one yearns for a filmmaker who'll buck the trend.

Enter the gifted Claire Denis, a French director brave enough to steer in precisely the opposite direction. About half of her new drama "Friday Night" takes place in a traffic jam caused by a transit strike. It's a gargantuan gridlock that has much of Paris slipping gearshifts into neutral, tapping fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, and peering into the distance for some sign of movement up ahead.

Among the drivers trapped in this nightmare is Laure, our heroine. She's just finished packing her stuff to move in with her boyfriend, and now she's on her way to dinner with a married couple she knows. But will she ever get there? Every street has lurched to a stop as engines idle and drivers fume.

A radio announcer says people could ease the congestion by hitching rides in cars already on the road. Laure wants to help, and her chance arrives when a stranger steps up to her window. It so happens he's a handsome stranger, and conversation blossoms when he joins her in the front seat.

The driving delay scuttles her dinner plans and soon they're sharing pizza in a modest restaurant. A little later, and a lot less innocently, they're sharing a hotel room for a spontaneous fling that Laure knows will be her last before settling down for good.

What's most appealing about "Friday Night" isn't its minimalist story, or even its understated acting by Valérie Lemercier as Laure and Vincent Lindon as her new friend. It's the way Ms. Denis unfolds the moment-by-moment events of the film, treating each tiny detail as a lovingly placed fragment of what gradually grows into an enticing mosaic of time, place, and personality.

At her best, as in this movie and her recent masterpiece "Beau Travail," she is one of contemporary film's best stylists. "Friday Night" is part tone poem, part love song, and all pure magic.

Not rated; contains sex.

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