The main protagonist of Claire Denis’ latest outing is Lionel (Alex Descas) a Parisian train conductor. He is widowed but still holds a strong bond with his daughter, Joséphine (newcomer Mati Diop) with whom he shares an apartment. We meet him as he stands alone overlooking the trains rush by as the sun sets on another day in Paris. In a sense, our lives do resemble a train ride. There can be so many great moments during the trip, so many wonderful things to see and people to meet, but eventually we arrive at our destination and life must go on. It is interesting that 35 Rhums opens during the day’s twilight, for we soon discover that the current chapter in the lives of Lionel and Joséphine is about to come to a close. Joséphine is a beautiful young woman studying anthropology at university who also happens to be the object of admiration for a young man living in the same condominium. In essence, much of what Lionel has come to love and get accustomed shall soon end while for Joséphine, a completely new and hopefully fulfilling life is about to begin.
35 Rhums is a tightly packaged look into a theme which is very familiar in the art of cinema. Stories of father-daughter relationships have been told time and time again in the history of cinema, so the quality of yet another entry into the genre will be determined on factors other than whether or not the story is good, because we already know that it is, otherwise filmmakers would cease to tell it. Rather, the merit of the film rests in whether or not this story is well told. Claire Denis is a writer director we’ve studied a little bit before, most recently in the European Female directors marathon. The marks of her sensibilities and her style are all over 35 Rhums. She proceeds to tell her stories calmly, quietly and without ever rushing unnecessarily into plot points in order to elicit some unwarranted emotions from the audience. In 35 Rhums, what reactions the viewer feels find their thrust in the natural and realistic progression of the scenes. In fact, this latest effort is constructed in such a way that the movie can be seen as a whole or as a series of brief capsules in the lives of a father, his daughter, and the people close to them. On their own the scenes are succinct and can say a lot about the protagonists. When woven together by the director, the end result is just as satisfying as was watching the individual moments. The small window we are privileged to see through gives a personal, succinct and emotionally satisfying idea of what the family’s nucleus is like. Much like in our own daily lives, we may remember the larger, more significant events in our lives, but it is primarily the smaller, more subtle moments and interactions we have with one another that shape us and our relationships with friends, family and lovers. Claire Denis and her cast have an understanding of this reality and bring much of it to the world of 35 Rhums. The looks, the smiles, the little gestures that denote love and respect, these are what create and sustain the bonds we have and it is through these brief but essential moments in the lives of the characters that we can better understand who they are.
It was enjoyable to see that no considerable conflict existed between Lionel and his daughter’s boyfriend, Noé. That might not be entirely accurate, for Lionel is definitely wrestling with the truth of the matter at hand, that slowly and surely his place as the single most important man in Joséphine’s life slipping away. He will eventually have to share the throne with the young buck for whom Joséphine has taken a great liking to. Still, the movie opts to avoid anything too melodramatic. That isn’t to say such a road would have proven ill, but there is a feeling of maturity about the way Denis chose to handle the dynamic between the three characters. There is no disrespect between Lionel and Noé, but they aren’t terribly close either. One can sense a slight awkwardness between the two but nothing outlandish ever results from it. Much credit should be given to the actors, who all give natural and convincing performances which do such a film justice. Alex Descas, who has worked with Denis previously on Trouble Every Day, has fantastic screen presence. His character may only be a widowed train operator, but there was also something reassuring about his presence. The love for his daughter is a strong one, just as the love of any father for his daughter should be, but it feels so controlled. He and Joséphine don’t trade banter all day long or have any ‘Ah, dad!’ moments, but we can detect definite a warmth in Lionel’s attitude towards Joséphine and the neighbours.
Although Mati Diop and the other players receive a decent amount of screen time, 35 Rhums does center more on Alex Descas’ character more than anybody else. The film begins with a personal moment belonging only to him and, without giving too much away, I can say that the movie closes with a very personal moment belonging to him. The character is endlessly watchable. Seeing him live through the changing tides with a quiet but no less difficult acceptance is, in my humble opinion, the highlight in a film with many highlights. Somewhere near the middle of the film, our cast of characters (Lionel, Joséphine, Noé and another female neighbour who fancies Lionel) are heading to a concert but due to car problems choose to spend the evening in a quaint little African themed restaurant. The owners play some romantic songs and so begins a sublimely constructed dance sequence in which the emotions rushing through everyone present switches from one moment to the next. There are in fact two very distinct dances occurring. One is the literal dance performed by the characters while the other is the difficult dance their emotions must endure. While I was affected by roller coaster ride everyone experiences, it was again Lionel, with that sad but always mature gaze that struck me the most. The realization that things around him are definitely changing whether or not he likes it rears its ugly mug once more and his reactions (or lack of a reaction) is a fine example of intelligent acting. I wouldn’t want to leave readers with the impression that no one else holds their own in the acting department (which isn’t true, the other players do just fine), but Alex Descas truly owns the film.
There isn’t much more I can say about 35 Rhums that would further dissect the finely tuned qualities it is blessed with. That’s often a difficulty in writing about films in which for long periods of time one has the impression that not much has happened in the traditional sense of a plot driven narrative, but one eventually realizes a plot driven narrative is pretty much beside the point. This is about a critical passage in time in a person’s life, but lived through a series of small moments. It’s about the complexities in life which emerge from apparently simple events and interactions. It isn’t very big nor is it very loud, but it packs a solid punch.