Claire Denis is an incredibly subtle filmmaker. Even if you know this, you're likely to miss things that she puts right before your eyes until you reflect on them later. Of her previous movies, I've seen Beau Travail and Trouble Every Day, and both stuck with me for days or weeks after I saw them, even though I wasn't sure what to think right away. Friday Night is less visually striking than either of those, but it is still beautiful. All three movies are more akin to short stories than novels, both in the sparsity of plot and in the way they allude to complexity of character that exists outside of the episodes that we see.
In Friday Night, Laure is on the verge of changing her life. She's moving in with a man, maybe a fiancé. This involves throwing out a lot of old things, in every sense, and she doesn't seem to have come to terms with this. Denis tells us nothing but shows us everything. Laure's attitudes toward marriage and commitment are reflected in the people she knows, with their crying babies and intolerance of men who smoke. Her attitudes toward her past are reflected in the way she dusts off the dashboard of her beloved (but up-for-sale) automobile, the way she repositions an ash tray and pack of cigarettes in a hotel room, and the way she finds comfort in empty rooms and empty beds. Her conflicting attitudes toward men, toward commitment, appear when she picks up Jean, a stranger, during a traffic jam — at times he seems like a vice, at times he seems to have vanished with her car, and at times, when he's driving, her life is out of her control as he races through back roads, she having foolishly let him behind the wheel and climbed aboard. In a flourish that typifies her sense of visual poetry, Denis alludes to universes outside of the central story with just a pair of shots in a restaurant: 1) Jean watches 2) a young man sweeping the floor as his watch and wedding ring catch the light. Which is to say that Jean notices a man working late, slaving in a restaurant to support a family. We know very little about Jean's situation, but we get a hint of his own attitudes toward marriage from the things he chooses to observe, in seconds. Similarly, Laure, who relates to Jean sexually, projects her feelings onto other women, seeing each of them as one of Jean's possible conquests. And before we leave Laure to her destiny, we get a sense of whether she has, this last night, come to terms with her new direction. It's a pivotal night in a woman's life that Denis packs into 90 minutes that feel effortless and casually observed.
Throughout its 132 minutes, Oasis moves imperceptibly between lightly comic scenes and ugly, uncomfortable episodes, never for a moment betraying its characters. Gong-Ju has cerebral palsy, and Jong-Du (played perfectly by Sol Kyung-gu) can't hold down a job or stay out of jail. Both are reluctantly tolerated at best or despised at worst by the people around them who would be much happier if the two would simply disappear. But confounding their families, and perhaps many people in the audience, they find a bond with each other. Writer and director Lee Chang-Dong resists portraying them as precious and their family members as demons. He shows us with care and precision why Jong-Du and Gong-Ju are difficult to interact with, why they are a burden on society. Gong-Ju's brother and his wife want to protect her while going about their normal lives, but this desire to protect is one of the prime sources of tragedy; from the point of view of the marginalized people it's aimed at, it's indistinguishable from the desire to shun. Both approaches demonstrate a lack of understanding so profound that its existence never crosses the brow of Gong-Ju's brother.
Gong-Ju seems surrounded by a wall that blocks any meaningful communication, and Lee takes us within that wall with surprising bursts of visual poetry. A sequence involving a bird flying around an apartment might be the most beautiful use of special effects to convey a character's thoughts — or even one of the most effective character introductions — that I've ever seen. The motif is later repeated twice, the image fractured more each time, until in the movie's final shot the bird is no longer "clean", white, and elegant but reduced to dust particles in the air. The climax in the tree goes on a bit long, and I was initially unsure about the decision to include fantasies that involve Gong-Ju functioning as someone without a disability, since they draw attention to her physical condition and to the actress playing the role (Moon So-ri), but her fantasies are integrated so seamlessly with the realistic narrative and contribute so greatly to our understanding of her that I've started to come around. Oasis would make a great double feature with The Son, the recent movie by the Dardenne brothers. It might make for an intense afternoon, but the time would be well-spent. Oasis walks closer to sentimentality, but both movies seem psychically attuned to their characters and demonstrate the importance of communication and understanding in solving complex social issues.