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Rendez-Vous with French Cinema: "35 Rhums", on the night shift

Ryland Walker Knight
Claire Denis' cinema of elision typically works around an event, or an issue, to best conjure a concept or a tone or a metaphor or a theme or, even, an affect. In her newest narrative film, 35 Rhums, Denis eases this strategy. If L'Intrus (2004) chugged its figure of hurt across the globe and Vers Mathilde (2005) burrowed into itself, 35 Rhums glides through its modest familial spaces. We might say 35 Rhums retains the "signature" Denis style, albeit more streamlined than its immediate predecessors, as all her movies shot in Paris feature more "story" than her excursions to the world's neglected corners or her documentaries. It's almost as if the city (the city of light), with its rails and its hives, demands a narrative that the desert or the islands resist. Predicated on trajectories (to say passage and transportation), 35 Rhums is directional but diversionary; a routine consistently interrupted. Like any good celebration—of life, of moments, of the body, of love—its leisure invites affection. As with all Denis films, it reminds us that we need not know nor express everything to truly feel something.
We begin looking with a train. We see rails stretch and snake ahead of our vantage, from behind (through) glass and into the fading sun, as we push forward. The frames repeat, echo, change with each other, and a dramatis personae lights up the screen in pace with the train. We would do well to realize that it is no happenstance that 35 Rhums was made on celluloid, on 35mm. Though the whole film denies explication, this opening is the most "non-narrative" passage: a "pure cinema" criss-cross of perception with trains acting out eye-lines and frames, linking times, arranging spaces into equations (though not through equivalence), setting parameters to negotiate, introducing a dad and a daughter.
Alex Descas plays Lionel rather similarly to all his roles in Denis films, specifically in relation to his Theo in J'ai pas sommeil (another single dad raising a child alone by circumstance more than by choice), with often-silent dignity—and here he gets to smile. Mati Diop plays Joséphine close-in, guarded yet loving, almost hiding behind her beauty. Lionel operates a train by day and rides a motorcycle home at night. Jo goes to school and occasionally works a night shift at an under-populated Virgin Records. They meet up to hug and eat, to remind one another of their lovely and, we gather, near-effortless bond, their joint call to have some kind of life together. Lionel and Jo live in a humble apartment that suits their mutual demeanor. The hallways are narrow but they help a drunken stumble. There is no competition for space. Though the stove sits a step away from the washer-dryer, the home affords them all they need (as Lionel notes late in the film) and, it would seem, all they desire. It is a real home. But the home is not a door-bound set of walls. Our families extend, as does our cast here, outside. In another surely-strategised-but-organic move, the peripheral pair of characters that desire Lionel and Jo are played by one relatively unknown actor and one Denis regular: Alex Descas is set opposite the wounded Nicole Dogue while Mati Diop holds her own with the mess of sexiness that is Grégoire Colin. Dogue plays Gabrielle, a mostly-jilted ex-lover and surrogate mother who cannot quite let go of her ties to this family, to the pull of Lionel. Colin plays Noé, an orphan upstairs who never hides his feelings, nor hides from them, for Jo.
Though others figure into their lives, these four remain the crucial players. The film evolves along with their trajectories, where they cross and join and push away from each other. It's about the freedom each allows the other within their system, about how free one can be in a routine. It's about the importance of respecting one's choices, of owning your self and your aims first. Love is what grows from there. Love builds outwards. The real revolution at hand in this simple story is the figure of a free family tree growing. Lionel knows the home is not just the everything available but a space of return, a place to cultivate in absence as much as in presence; we figure the ordinary in order to return to it. Jo knows she must fly; she knows she will return. They both know this life only happens once.
All of this is conveyed at angles as Denis' style remains (however comfortable) pitched in a furtive posture, if more inviting than ever. And all of this, of course, is an ideal—a dream. The return is never so simple. Thankfully, though, this film is about fording the flux into the future, about learning to weave our lives into world. It's about celebrating the moments of departure. Indeed, its focus on people working in transportation seems a fine way to highlight the importance of navigation, as we read in, say, de Certeau's everyday practice or, even, in Queneau's exercises of style. It's about the freedom we have to organize the world as we see fit, as we see how we fit into it.
Denis never spells out her response to this call, of course. Her cloud style lends its hover-work to detailing gestures of routine, to action, which extends to her corpus in total, each work perpetually in conversation through repetition not just of themes but faces. It's funny how many Denis "stock" actors retain their "real" identity within her films to further reorient this "representational" cinema without the mask of scare quotes as I've used here. Alex Descas and Grégoire Colin are almost tropes, only not, as their material ghosts have grown and morphed on screen, absorbing their backgrounds (not only under Denis' camera) to shade these performances and, after this film, coloring their youths in turn. To see a daughter turn into a lover between the men and the camera, dancing under the groove of a love letter to history (that syrup-sweet Commodores ode to soul sounds, "Nightshift"), inaugurates the possible more than confirms our known capabilities.


Claire Denis
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