Above: Mati Diop (left) and Alex Descas (right) play daughter and father in Claire Denis' new film.
Let us get the Ozu out of the way: 35 Rhums
starts with Late Spring
’s playbook, where a widowed father (Alex Descas) is living with deep affection with his marriageable daughter (Mati Diop) at a point in both their lives where each should move on. And there are many trains, and a great deal of rice. Now, perhaps, we can get to Claire Denis’ new film, a step in a safer direction than the nearly off-the-map splendors she charted with L’Intrus
While the extremity of L’Intrus’ elliptical flow pushed the film’s form in a particularly challenging direction, 35 Rhums’ tighter plot and tidier focus on a small family and their small group of friends is no less fluid. Around the father and daughter drift loved ones living in the same building (Grégoire Colin pining for the daughter, Nicole Dogue for her father), some of the students around the young girl’s life, and some of the train workers around that of her father. Like all of Denis’ films at least since 1994’s U.S. Gone Home, her gliding, off-hand impressionism weighs and considers the importance of character sensibilities and the flow of connection and disconnection between cross-cultural consciousnesses. In other words, instead of capturing what one person sees or feels, a Denis film like 35 Rhums has what one person seems to experience flows almost imperceptibly into the experience of another.
With such a technique and such an interest, weight in the film is removed, as 35 Rhums (shot by the great Agnès Godard, edited by Guy Lecorne) moves gracefully from person to person. The continuous, criss-crossing train motif is appropriate, as both the family’s friendly apartment complex and their subordinate communities of school and work are environments of circulation of bodies, sights, and ideas. Not all connect; one only has to look back at Denis’ filmography to see how such a impressionism is used to express alienation, and student protesters, a depressed retiree, and one particular long, unrequited love in 35 Rhums makes sure that flow does not necessarily mean equilibrium, equality, and tranquility. Yet the film is the most grounded, most bourgeois of any Denis has produced in a while, with its singular emphasis on the desires and integrity of a small, real family, and that of the equally small adopted family outside (Colin and Dogue), whining to get in. If Denis’ push towards minimalism in her run of films from 1999 until 35 Rhums made anything stunningly obvious, it was just how expressive and perceptive films could be while paying nominal attention to explicit plotting and narrative clarity. 35 Rhums is a bit different, as its story holds on more than usual to traditional lines of character and action, but Denis’ sensibility transforms it from an obvious revision of the Late Spring paradigm to something else entirely.
Could one make a smaller film than Ozu? Denis clearly thinks so. If Ozu’s rigid, extraordinary formalism of composition, gesture, and montage creates a metaphysics of flow and transience, Claire Denis’ film is flow, the immediate sensation and not the orchestration to create it. Everything is in passing, is in movement, but in being so is all the more powerful: Alex Descas’ weighty, three-dimensional presence that helps bring the film down to the realm of the physical; Colin’s hopeful but menacing views of the hallway leading to two apartment doors, one lit up (and presumably that of the father and daugher’s place), the other dead; everyone’s clothing, so attuned to habit and self-reliance, so comfortably and regularly worn; and of course the film’s centerpiece, a spontaneous party of the four proto/partial/quasi family members in a closed bar during a rain storm after a breakdown.
This masterful scene’s series of looks and touches, of desire and affection all expressed but all unresolved because everyone feels so strongly about themselves and their own situation, carries the sensual, emotional impact that Denis sustains in an undertone throughout, seen in Diop’s affectionate smiles, Descas’ stony, thoughtful silences, the small curl in the front of Nicole Dogue’s short hair, and Colin’s natural look of zealous unreliability. With so much observation and so much interiority, we wait for the characters to stop holding back to watch and instead take a direct plunge into the flow Denis shows them to be a part of. In fact, this may very well be the reason why there are some unexpected references to protests and Third World debtors in the film: in a world where everyone shares a degree of the same space and sensation, but keeps their thoughts and impressions to themselves, only activism can really change things, even if that agency is expressed simply through the result of a young woman finally deciding to get married.