The crisscrossing of rails seen through the smudged windows of a Parisian train glint softly under dusky autumn light. Soon it will be dark, and the faces and figures of passengers will appear reflected on the Plexiglas. Most of the characters in 35 Rhums work in transportation, driving the trains and taxis that move us around our cities. Among them are Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), whose relationship, one characterized by warmth, patience and generosity, is undergoing transition. The images of Lionel and Joséphine—Jo, for short—that lingers most vividly are of them riding together on Lionel’s motorbike, or, in a brief, lyrical departure from the film’s dominant realism, a horse. Despite its abiding calm 35 Rhums is a film where perpetual motion is always being quietly emphasized, though the movements we witness will come to feel less like arrivals and departures than they do like circulation. This is a gentle story about letting things take their course.
With its attention to potent details that slip outside the dictates of conventional narrative, its resistance to explicit drama where implication will do just fine, and its utter lack of severity or formal rigour while maintaining a perfectly recognizable, carefully honed aesthetic, 35 Rhums is quintessential Claire Denis. 20 years after her feature debut Chocolat (1988), the French writer/director has emerged as an exemplary figure in world cinema, one of those luminaries whose work frequently dazzles audiences, is celebrated, discussed, written about and argued over, yet somehow rarely manages to appear on screens outside of major centres and film festivals. Since I first saw 35 Rhums at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2008 Denis has already released a follow-up, which possesses only marginally better chances at finding decent distribution thanks to its exotic milieu—war-torn Cameroon—and the presence of international star Isabelle Huppert. (Like I said, marginally better.) 35 Rhums in the meantime played a number of other major festivals but received no theatrical release in Canada. It’s now available on DVD from Mongrel.
Written by Denis and her frequent co-scenarist Jean-Pol Fargeau, 35 Rhums feels like an homage to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Late Spring (49) in particular. It’s not simply the mellow air or the poetic intermediary scenes that invoke the Japanese master but the story itself, the widowed father, the adult daughter, the negotiations that lead to her full blossoming into independence. Not that any of this is clearly stated in the film—Denis’ approach feels antithetical to exposition, and part of the pleasure of immersing yourself into this film comes from gradually discovering the relationships and histories shared by the characters through their behaviour, their layers of trust, their boundaries. There’s Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), the taxi driver close in age to Lionel who lives in the same building, who smokes a lot on her balcony, and observes, who’s perfectly at ease with Lionel and Jo yet also accustomed to being pushed away when she tries too aggressively to be part of their family. There’s Noé (Grégoire Colin), closer to Jo’s age, living in an apartment full of memories with a fat old cat and an intense, inarticulate desire to change everything in his life. And there are Lionel’s work buddies, who go out drinking when there’s an occasion to celebrate, such as the retirement of René (Julieth Mars Toussaint), a quiet man with a sweet smile and heavy-lidded eyes. He keeps a famous photograph pasted up in his locker of a guy keeping dozens of plates spinning on rods. What will René do when he has no more plates to spin?
Populated with actors who evoke through their mere presence a rich sense of past experiences—Descas, a regular feature of Denis’ work, is especially good at evoking a long, intriguing personal story without saying a word—nothing about what’s going on either up front or in the margins of 35 Rhums is entirely ambiguous. So much is communicated through glances, embraces, through the way people stand up to eat dinner in their kitchen, the way they might enjoy farting on the couch of a friend when he’s not home, they way they trade off partners when dancing in a small restaurant to the Commodores’ ‘Nightshift’—the song’s rippling guitar/bass/percussion/keyboard groove never sounded so seductive—after being stranded in some suburb when Gabrielle’s car breaks down on the way to a concert. 35 Rhums is elliptical, yet Denis isn’t withholding. She’s selective—what she chooses to show and what she chooses to leave out are major elements of her craft. When Lionel and Jo finally reach the moment where their paths must diverge we know we haven’t learned everything about them. We know their lives are far too much to fathom for a movie. But we’ve seen enough of what they share to sharply feel the rushing current of conflicting emotions welling up in both of them, and this variation on an oft-told tale becomes something singular.