I like to go into movies not knowing anything about them, but my only prior Claire Denis movies were the dreamily sexy Friday Night and the violent vampire flick Trouble Every Day. So there’s a scene early on in 35 Shots of Rum where a young guy (Grégoire Colin of Beau travail, Sex Is Comedy, Sandrine’s brother in Secret Defense) stops in an apartment building, overhearing the sounds from a room down the hall, and I thought “oh shit, he’s going to murder the people in that room,” then, “or maybe he’s in love with them!” With no frame of reference, it threw me for a few minutes. Turns out the latter was closer to the truth… it’s a (mostly) nonviolent love poem of a film.
Later I read some descriptions of the movie and found them misleading. IMDB: “The relationship between a father and daughter is complicated by the arrival of a handsome young man” – I got the impression that he’d been their neighbor for years, so what arrival? Landmark: “father and daughter realize they must confront a painful aspect of their past in order to embrace what lies ahead” – implies suspense where there is none. Presumably it refers to them visiting her mother’s grave towards the end of the film, but no dark secrets are painfully revealed there. The same description calls the film “gloriously delicate and sublime,” which is right on. It feels like that spectacular final scene of Summer Hours playing on repeat.
Lionel (Alex Descas, scientist in Trouble Every Day and airport rendezvous in Limits of Control) and daughter Josephine (Mati Diop, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s niece) live together, take care of each other, and hang out with neighbor Gabrielle (who likes Lionel) and Noe (who likes Josephine). They each attend to their own careers of train operator, student, cab driver and [something involving lots of travel to Africa], respectively. Third-world debt and Frantz Fanon are mentioned, the anthropology students at Josephine’s school go on strike, and a boy in her class likes her, but the main struggles are Lionel’s former coworker, unable to adjust to retirement, who eventually kills himself, and Noe threatening to move away. Correct me if I’m wrong – I’m not too good with story points told entirely through costume design – but Josephine and Noe decide to get married at the end, after father and daughter confront a painful aspect of their past.
I’ll join everyone else in mentioning the soft, lovely cinematography of Agnès Godard and the perfectly suited music of Tindersticks.
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. … 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.
Claire Denis’s latest may appear whisper-thin on the surface, yet it’s marvelously profound, illuminating the love between a father and daughter but also highlighting the difficulty of relinquishing what most people spend a lifetime putting into place.
I’ve been dreaming for many years of making an homage to Ozu, and this particular film was possible for me to use as an homage to Ozu, because actually it’s the story of my grandfather and my mother. She was raised by her father. And once I took her to see a retrospective of Ozu, and she really had a sort of shock to see that film [Late Spring]. That was like maybe ten, fifteen years ago, and I told her, “Maybe, once, I will try to make a film like that for you.”
Trivia from interviews… the “family” was supposed to be on their way to a Prince concert, and “Little Red Corvette” was to be playing in the cab, but this was deleted due to time and money constraints.