35 Rhums (Claire Denis, 2009)
You’re spared yet more Losey (though there’s still one week of the NFT season left) as I got the times mixed up yesterday and missed The Servant. I picked up a free paper and found that if I wanted to catch a mid-afternoon film in the West End, it would have to be 35 Rhums at the Renoir or Bruno at any number of places. As I already have a multitude of very good reasons to commit suicide thank you, I went with 35 Rhums.
I’d seen one Claire Denis film before –Vendredi Soir– which I thought stylish, well-crafted, thoughtful, and amoral to the point of repugnance. Nevertheless I respected her talents and her distinctive style; her films are very spacious and they don’t spoonfeed the viewer, they’re made on their own terms without bending over backwards to accommodate you. This film confirmed me in my opinion of her; it’s the strong, silent type.
Train driver Lionel and his daughter Josephine live together in a Parisian flat. They are cosy and intimate, free with caresses and cuddles- so much so that I took them for a long-term couple to begin with. The pace of the film is at its most relaxed when they get back to their sanctuary at the end of each day. The camera is often static, looking down the hallway, either character wandering on and off screen as they walk from room to room (composition is one of Denis’ strongest suits). Long shots of them taking off their boots when they get in the door. Equally the film takes its time when watching them eat together. Through repetition we learn their little rituals; how Lionel takes off his jumper and t-shirt when he gets home, and puts on his dressing gown.
They’re depicted in an artful yet naturalistic way, and you get the sense that they’re like any of us; except that they talk to their neighbours. Noe and Gabrielle both live alone, they are respectively the same age as Josephine and Lionel, and it’s pretty blatant they are in love with them (their names even rhyme). Noe’s first appearance has him lingering outside their door, Josephine’s music trickling through, several times changing his mind about whether to knock or walk away, so we know he’s amorous before we have a clue who he is. Taxi driver Gabrielle is more overt with her loneliness, always smoking in the communal hall or on her balcony, hoping to run into Lionel or Jo.
The film makes you think about the breakdown of the traditional family, how people are trying to find new structures. As the four head out in Gabrielle’s cab to attend a concert, she (perhaps optimistically) chirps that it’s ages since they went out “en famille”. The car breaks down in torrential rain (shades of Vendredi Soir) and they miss the concert, stopping in an empty bar while they wait for a tow truck.
This scene is very well executed, the acting spot on. When they were leaving the house a fellow student approached Jo with a bunch of flowers and the offer of two concert tickets; Noe senses it will soon be too late to make a move. As Gabrielle and Lionel slow dance, Noe suggests that they follow suit. Jo laughs off the suggestion, but they do eventually. Noe reaches behind her and lets down her hair, they gaze at each other and it is a certainty that they are going to kiss. An eternity passes. When Noe kisses her, Josephine pulls away and sits down. Both sulk as the patronne sets down platefuls of food. Now Lionel dances with the gorgeous patronne, as Gabrielle watches wistfully and wishes it were her.
The next morning, Noe and the ladies drink coffee in his flat. They sit in silence, the atmosphere fraught with tension, slight shame and general morning-afterness. Noe shows them the recently-dead body of his cat, then slings it into a binbag with its squeaky chew toys. He’s leaving. People are forever asking him why he stays on in his parents’ place with its old-fashioned furniture, and now the cat’s dead his last bond is broken. He’s been offered a job in Africa and the flat is up for sale.
A little tension has crept into the lives of Josephine and Lionel too. Lionel starts by earnestly telling her “I want you to feel free”, then snaps at Jo when she insists on ironing his shirts. When Noe announces his departure Josephine throws her anxieties into a huge spring clean. Lionel asserts that they two will carry on “as we’ve always done” but cannot calm her. She finds and pockets a love letter from to Lionel from Gabrielle, written when she was a child.
However fragile the dance of the foursome might be, Lionel’s colleague Rudy comes a warning signal about the lot of those cast adrift on their own. Given presents at his retirement, he cuts a bathetic figure on the bus home clutching his painted African wood carving and his iPod. He predicts with deep despair that he will live to 100. Later Lionel bumps into him in a bar. He’s pissed in the afternoon, talking about “plusieurs projets” but for now nursing a brandy. Later still Lionel finds his body on the train tracks. The moment of crisis is captured by a handheld camera that jerks all over the place. We see pools of tears form in Lionel’s eyes before we see the body.
Things unfold slowly and discreetly in this film; it’s rather like getting to know strangers in real life. We would never be so rude as to ask direct personal questions, but over time we can draw things out of people by talking around the subject. Towards the end, we wonder why on earth Lionel and Jo are suddenly driving a camper van along the German autobahn. At a picturesque village with fairytale spires, they stop off to visit a middle-aged woman and her daughter; when they converse, we deduce that it’s Jo’s aunt. Then they tend to her mother’s grave and sleep side by side underneath the stars.
It gets more and more oblique at the film’s conclusion. Everyone’s in formal dress and preparing for an event. Is it Josephine’s graduation or her wedding? If so, to Noe or someone from university? Lionel finally drinks the titular shots of rum at the function, as “this only happens once in your life”. Back home, he unpacks a new rice cooker and sets it by the one he bought for Jo at the start of the film, telling us all we need to know.
Another thing that I kept on noticing. This film is set in Paris. It takes in crowded commuter trains, lecture halls, nightlife and street scenes. There are no white people, until we meet the German aunt. Even when the railway workers are out partying for Rudy’s leaving do, the barmaid is oriental. This has to be deliberate and I wonder what Denis’ point was. It did have me questioning something I normally take for granted, and wondering what a black Frenchman would be thinking whilst watching Amelie.
Something of a furtive, sideways glance of a film, but an engrossing one. The Tindersticks soundtrack augments its quiet, contemplative feel.