By Martyn Conterio.
French filmmaker Claire Denis’ latest film 35 Rhums (35 Shots Of Rum) is a wonderful return to form after the ponderous L’Intrus (The Intruder).
35 Rhums is loosely based on Ozu’s Late Spring, and is the story of a father and daughter living in a working class Parisian district. The daughter, a university student is on the verge of leaving the family nest, and making her own way in the world, yet feels obliged to take care of her father. Lionel and his daughter Josephine are joined by neighbours, Garbrielle and Noe to form an unconventional family that is at once close and intrusive. All are lonely and sad in their own way, yet they are all alone together.
Refreshingly, the working class set-up is not one of disfunction and filled with drugs and all sorts of abuse usually found in social realist film settings. As Denis said herself in the Q&A after the screening, “Being a train driver…it’s working class, but it’s a good job, well paid…there’s responsibility for other people”.
Claire Denis’ career has been quite adventurous…from Djibouti setting of Beau Travail (Good Work) to the horrific cannibal movie Trouble Every Day, to the tender relationship drama Vendredi Soir (Friday Night).
The adventurous qualities here, see her make a film that involves black and mixed race, working class Parisians and managing to skillfully avoid stereotypes – their socio-economic set up is the least interesting thing about them.
35 Rhums is a subtle piece of work. At times, melancholic, and at other times, joyous. The stand out scene is a late-night cafe sequence set to The Commodores classic ‘Nightshift’.
The film does take a while to get going, yet its slow pace is, again, deceptive…it is a film of silence and movement. The dialogue is sparse.
It isn’t all doom and gloom however. The scene in which Noe discovers his cat has died, and proceeds to put it in a black bin bag along with the cat’s toys as if he’s putting out the rubbish, is hilarious…revealing Noe’s eccentric nature and also his pragmatism. His apartment is a like a museum filled with junk that he cannot relate to…as he’s often away working.
Not everything works in 35 Rhums: the character of Rene, his retirement as a train driver and his eventual suicide, deserves a movie of his own…he works symbolically…yet it feels stretched. And the detour to Germany doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the film…it reveals backstory that doesn’t need revealing. The dead mother is a presence throughout the film.
Claire Denis’ latest film is a return to form; it is funny, sad and a subtle piece of filmmaking. Every actor inhabits their characters well…offering an array of emotions that are very poignant.
Agnes Godard’s cinematography is outstanding too. The film’s exploration of railway lines, rain-drenched streets at night and grey high-rises are shot in a fresh way that looked poetic and fresh on the big screen.
After the film, Claire Denis discussed the film and her career in a Q&A session after the screening. She has a whimsical, inquisitive nature…as she said regarding 35 Rhums:
“For me the film (35 Rhums) was vast and epic…as real life is…there is no closure…only death. With this film, every day life was under observation…and we can all relate to that. I know how to use a washing machine, I know how to use a dishwasher, a vacuum cleaner…I can drive a car”.
And that is the greatest trick she pulled in her film…making the mundane appear poetic and epic.
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