Kurdistan, which stretches across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, is a phantom nation without hard borders. The frontiers of the four countries that contain the Kurds are real enough, however, as Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi demonstrated with his first feature, A Time for Drunken Horses. Like that film, his new Marooned in Iraq depicts a trip from Iran to Iraq. Set in 1991, just after Saddam Hussein’s military assaulted rebellious Iraqi Kurds with chemical weapons, this film also takes an indirect route from farce to horror.

Like so many Iranian art films, Marooned in Iraq is a tale of a quest, and has a partially improvised script and semi-documentary feel. A famous Kurdish singer, Mirza (Shahab Ebrahimi), receives a request for help from his ex-wife, Hanareh, who fled to Iraq 23 years ago, after Iran’s new Islamic authorities banned women from performing. To accompany him, Mirza enlists his two middle-aged sons, mustachioed biker Barat (Faegh Mohamadi) and much-married Audeh (Allah-Morad Rashtian), who are also musicians. Though neither is enthusiastic about leaving home, the especially reluctant Audeh does come to see the trip as a potential opportunity to acquire a new wife. (None of the first seven have provided him with a son, although he does have 11 daughters.) Mirza gives his sons no choice, presenting the journey as a matter of honor: He and Hanareh were never actually divorced, he lies.

Where A Time for Drunken Horses was austere and wrenching, the first half of Marooned in Iraq is exuberant, darkly humorous, and literally musical. The roar of death-dealing Iraqi planes can be heard intermittently, but on the Iranian side of the border, life goes messily on. “God bless Saddam,” crows one local hustler, who’s made a lot of money thanks to the chaos. Mirza, Barat, and Audeh shamble through villages and refugee camps, tracking a letter sent by Hanareh (played by the director’s mother, Iran Ghobadi) and occasionally performing keening, rhythmic Kurdish traditional music. They often find themselves in the midst of commonplace dramas and comic vignettes: A spurned suitor tries to disrupt a wedding; bandits posing as cops rob travelers at checkpoints; and a man tries to sell medicine to prevent AIDS, a disease he claims foreigners have unleashed to kill Kurdish mules. The three travelers even happen upon a smuggler’s staging area that recalls the ones in Ghobadi’s previous film.

Some of these incidents are clearly meant to be instructive. Transfixed by a woman’s beautiful voice, Barat immediately asks to marry her. The unseen woman says yes, if he’ll teach her to be a musician. That’s forbidden, he says, and she runs away. Other sequences are pure slapstick, with Mirza and his sons behaving more like the Three Stooges than like men who are about to enter Kurdistan’s killing fields. It’s the broad humor that most distinguishes Marooned in Iraq, sometimes annoyingly, from other Iranian films. The laughter stops, though, when the men cross the snowy mountains to discover mass graves, camps full of orphans, and the devastated village where Hanareh may be.

Originally given the more blandly uplifting title Songs From My Homeland—and filmed two years before the statues of Hussein came tumbling down—Ghobadi’s movie ends with an image of hope. Yet the bulk of the film is dedicated to establishing that the Kurds are as much incorrigible as indomitable. An earthy comedy with a poignant punch line, Marooned in Iraq is an elegy bursting with life.

Vendredi Soir (“Friday Night”) is also a road movie, but this time director Claire Denis—who traveled to Africa for Chocolat and Beau Travail—can’t even navigate from one side of Paris to the other. Unsettled by the imminent prospect of leaving her apartment and moving in with her boyfriend, Laure (Valérie Lemercier) gets in her car to go a friend’s house for dinner. She’s quickly reminded that a transit strike has snarled the city’s streets. The resulting gridlock recalls Godard’s Weekend, but with considerably less dramatic results. Rather than presaging the breakdown of Western civilization, the traffic jam simply leads to a small break from domestic normality.

When the story begins, Laure is packing. Performing triage on her possessions, she speaks reassuringly to items she’s decided to keep. The scale is intimate, with cinematographer Agnès Godard—a longtime Denis collaborator—focusing on little gestures and keeping the camera close to her subject. This scene sets the scale for the film, which unfolds mostly in small spaces: Laure’s apartment and car, and then a hotel room. Even the streets of Paris, crowded with cars, seem tightly confined. After the opening shots of rooftops and the Eiffel Tower, there are no grand vistas.

As tempers flare on the street, a radio announcer suggests that drivers be magnanimous and offer rides to strangers marooned by the strike. Laure follows this counsel but is told, sensibly enough, that walking is faster. Stalled, she starts reclaiming items from a box of her possessions intended for a charity. Then a man, Jean (Vincent Lindon), asks if he can get in the car. Thus begins a laconic flirtation, casual and yet heightened by its suddenness and anonymity. On the radio, Line Renaud and Dean Martin sing “Two Sleepy People.” Laure calls her friend, who says dinner has been cancelled. After a few quick separations—the early stages of a relationship telescoped into a matter of minutes—Laure and Jean go to a cheap hotel. A series of tightly framed shots conveys both the strangeness and the familiarity of the encounter.

Simple and almost wordless, Vendredi Soir seems like a work of pure cinema. Yet it’s actually adapted from a novel by Emmanuèle Bernheim, who collaborated on the screenplay. (I haven’t read the book, but an interview with Bernheim indicates that she was trying to convey something primal: “There’s this man’s smell and nothing else counts anymore.”) The film is very French, but not because of the couple’s erudite, sophisticated chatter. Laure talks to the clothes she’s packing almost as much as she does to Jean, and there’s no voice-over to explain her feelings.

Some reviewers have suggested that the events of Vendredi Soir are merely the protagonist’s fantasy, and the film does have an otherworldly disposition. Denis even uses a few modest animation effects to show Laure’s charmed connection to the things around her. The gently hypnotic music by Dickon Hinchliffe (one of the Tindersticks, who scored two previous Denis pictures) adds to the dreamy vibe. Yet for all its subjectivity, the film is constructed almost entirely from the stuff of everyday life.

Although Denis is unlikely to ever get a call from Jerry Bruckheimer, most of her movies do include violent incidents. (The new film’s controversial predecessor, Trouble Every Day, is a bloody vampire flick.) But Vendredi Soir features only the most mundane of interpersonal tensions, and builds to the tiniest of epiphanies. In other words, nothing much happens, and viewers who are waiting for a good murder to enliven the action will be bored out of their minds. Those capable of surrendering to the film’s mood, however, will find its ordinariness transporting. CP