Friday Night” (2003)
It's easy to look at "Vendredi Soir" and mistake it for a slight piece of work, and after the lush tragedy of "Beau Travail" and the dark cannibalism of "Trouble Every Day," it's undeniably a change of pace, and possibly Denis' lightest, funniest work to date. But in this case, 'light' doesn't necessarily mean 'frothy.' It follows Laure (a wonderful Valerie Lemercier), who's about to move in with her boyfriend, but gets stuck in traffic during a transport strike. She picks up a hitchhiker (Vincent Lindon, the lead in "Pour Elle," the original version of this week's Paul Haggis thriller "The Next Three Days"), and the two almost immediately develop a very, very deep connection. What's particularly impressive (and what separates it from the likes of "Before Sunrise," which is essentially dialogue-driven) is how little is said in the course of the film -- it's an almost impossibly intimate, detailed film, revolving around little gestures and snatched images familiar to anyone who's had the kind of one-night-only connection shown here, the kind that you never quite forget. It's got to be one of the all-time great city movies too, capturing a Paris that's as suffocating as it is vibrant. Denis and regular DoP Agnes Godard (who, as strong as Yves Cape is, was much missed on "White Material") shoot the hell out of it, and the score's gorgeous as well. It might be a minor work, but if every director's minor-key films were as good as this, it'd be a wonderful thing. [A-]

“White Material” (2010) A thorny picture that is as imperfect as it is enthralling, Denis’ first cinematic trip back to Africa in its racial/geopolitical vagueness is frustrating yet engrossing. Isabelle Huppert plays a haughty, stubborn French coffee plantation owner who refuses to leave her home despite a raging civil war upending the unnamed African country in which they reside. With the country in chaos crumbling around them, her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) tries to sell her plantation behind her back and meanwhile she’s harboring a deposed African revolutionary (Isaach De Bankolé) now wanted very much dead. After an encounter with some child rebels on the wrong end of a machete, her humiliated son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) shaves his head and begins to lose his mind while Huppert’s Maria Vial white goddess character refuses to budge or change her way of life. While clearly a picture about a white landowner hiding a black fugitive in the middle of a African uprising is allegorical of something, what that something is exactly remains almost irritatingly elusive. To her credit, Denis is clearly more interested in character than she is in context, but the picture’s refusal to comment on its framework -- not mention a confounding violent conclusion -- does sometimes feel like a dubious proposition. While it doesn’t all add up, “White Material” is still very much moody and disquieting film. [B]

--Sam Mac, Gabe Toro, Oliver Lyttelton & Rodrigo Perez