Grade: D

Ice Cube doesn’t appear in “Friday Night,” and that’s rather too bad, because he might have brought a bit of life to this dreary, pretentious two-hander from inexplicably esteemed French director Claire Denis. A Parisian woman (Valerie Lemercier) is moving to her boyfriend’s place during a transit strike; while crawling along in the gridlocked traffic she gives a lift to a passerby (Vincent Lindon); and after a while they’re spending the evening together, sharing a nice Italian meal and a bed in a mediocre hotel. The next morning she runs out into the street looking happy and liberated; the freeze-frame that follows is like an urban mirror-image of the famous shot with which Truffaut ended “The 400 Blows.” And that’s it.

Denis’s purpose is obviously to tell this threadbare tale, which might have made a piercing short story, as some sort of cinematic poem. Her earlier pictures–such as “Beau Travail,” her hugely overrated 1999 updating of “Billy Budd,” set in the French foreign legion–showed that her interest is in the style in which a film is told rather than the narrative itself. That’s not in itself a fatal problem, but it certainly becomes one when style is almost completely lacking. “Friday Night” is not an attractive-looking film: its gritty, jittery cinematography (by Agnes Godard) doesn’t aspire to elegance, and especially in the intimate scenes, where it employs oppressive close-up and brutally quick edits that make the action deliberately unclear, it simply seems amateurish. The acting by Lemercier and Lindon has a certain naturalness to recommend it, but little more; they fail to create full, rounded characters, and seem merely to be going through the motions required by the schematic script. And the direction itself strikes one as workmanlike rather than inspired. The result is a picture that seems to ramble its way through an essentially tepid little anecdote.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fashion films that are basically about mood rather than story, and when well-done they can serve as a very welcome alternative to the usual run of slam-bang Hollywood flicks that offer reams of mindless plot and no style at all. But “Friday Night” is as bad in its way as those pictures are in theirs. It will make you long for the weekend.