With 35 Rhums, Claire Denis has made her most accessible film to date, but don’t let the smooth taste fool you; working once again with our greatest living cinematographer (Agnes Godard, who makes the world look like a dream that you could hold in your hands), Denis has not compromised her rigor or her storytelling style for the sake of narrative simplicity. Instead, using the image to once again convey all of the emotions that her characters rarely ever discuss, Denis has chosen a straightforward family narrative and put her skill and aesthetic sensibility to perfect use. We shouldn’t be surprised; one of the finest filmmakers working today, Denis is an artist who can’t help but thrill us, hop scotching from subject to genre to story in each of her films, staying fresh by applying her unique vision to the conventions of the cinematic form. Having already conquered the horror film (Trouble Every Day), the romance (Friday Night), the classic literary adaptation (Beau Travail), the espionage thriller (L’Intrus) and the crime drama (I Can’t Sleep), Denis has decided to make a family melodrama.
Lionel (Alex Descas, more about him in a moment) is a train operator (pun intended), working the subways and commuter rails by day and spending time with his dutiful daughter, Jo (Mati Diop), at night. A college student who occasionally works the night shift at a record store (remember those?), Jo has the attentions of the family’s neighbor Noé (Grégoire Colin), a sad-eyed orphan who lives in the apartment above Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a single taxi driver who loves Lionel from afar. As Jo and Noé orbit one another, Lionel is too busy working and raising his daughter to pay much serious attnetion to Gabrielle’s affections. An apartment building is a small place, however, and a sense of community and family permeates the entire film, with neighbors remembering their contributions to the upbringing of the children and where personal losses and romantic unions are recognized and deeply felt by all of the characters. It is a vertical village, a place where common interests continually bring people together and where the passing of time is marked collectively in the experiences and changes that happen every day.
Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums
Before I continue, a word about Alex Descas; is there a more elegant actor working today? Descas has an incredible ease before the camera and, despite the fact that he often plays quiet characters, his presence is never less than captivating. While some actors tend to portray introspection as a form of brooding, a menacing quality that showcases the pain of a tortured soul, Descas is the absolute opposite; always present, always in control, moved by experience but full of grace and life. I can’t watch him enough. In 35 Rhums he gives a tour de force performance, epitomizing the wisdom of a father and the empathetic fear of a working man as he approaches retirement age. There is no violence in him, only tenderness, and his portrayal of the conflicted Lionel is as moving as they come. Charged with letting go of his daughter as she enters adulthood and begins life on her own, Decas’ Lionel embodies all of the conflicts any parent must feel as they slowly and inevitably let go.
Denis matches Descas’ easy grace with a light touch all her own; perhaps the freedom to examine familial emotion has brought her own emotional instincts to the forefront, but Denis’ typical poetry is here tempered by a warmth and comic sensibility I hadn’t seen in her work before. 35 Rhums features a fart joke, a gag with a cat and far less narrative fragmentation than usual, all of which lends itself to the feeling of being an “easier” film than, say, L’Intrus, but I have a suspicion that this is all done in service to the story. That is not to place Denis’ films against one another in some false competition or hierarchy, but instead to say that while some stories demand more abstraction or actually gain meaning by being told poetically, the straight-ahead narrative of 35 Rhums is perfectly served by the structure of scenes as Denis’ presents them.
Which is also not to say there isn’t a copious serving of the Denis-Godard poetry here; one of the most moving shots in the film (and the most lovely thing I’ve seen on screen all week) is an all too brief diversion with a small parade of children carrying candle-lit lanterns down a country lane on Halloween. The moment is perfect Denis; as a father and daughter revisit their familial roots, we’re swept up in the unexpected emotion of watching children at sunset, a reminder of Jo’s lost youth, of Denis’, of our own. This is cinema, and why I love it so.