Claire Denis :: France :: 2008 :: 1h40
The quiet Lionel (played by the cool Alex Descas) lives with his grown up daughter Joséphine (newcomer Mati Diop) in a comfortable, albeit somewhat sterile, grey, contemporary apartment in a Parisian suburb. Life has unfortunately taken away Lionel’s wife, and left the two-person family in a state of tranquil solitude, where the father and daughter lean on each other in the big wide world. This outside world is there, as their entourage, but they keep it at bay. Lionel knows they can not continue living like that indefinitely, and one day he will have to let his daughter go, to live her own life, but silently he hopes that that day will be far off. When their upstairs neighbour Noé, who has always been there, announces that he will leave, Joséphine gets angry. It is at that moment that she too realises that the world around her can not be forever frozen. It is time to look ahead.
The small family is running on a borrowed time, but happy to be together while they still can. They are compared to Gabrielle, the family friend, who lives in hope and the afore mentioned neighbour Noé, who lives, disorientated, in painful past of his parents’ death. Both of them cling to Lionel and Joséphine for their stability, for the calm love they share. As a viewer, you can not help but feel that Lionel “should” be living with Gabrielle and Joséphine with Noé, as that would be a more natural state than a grown-up girl living with her father. But of course, there are no rules to who who should be living with who. Or are there? When Lionel and Joséphine look to their future, what do they see? This in between state, at the end of the close-knit family life and the starting of your own, is the playing field of the film.
35 Rhums, is a very slow movie with a close attention to detail, reminiscent of Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir. We see what is going on, through the actions of the characters, leaving very little to be said. The consequence of such an approach is that you have to slow down the pace, to allow the audience time to take in those details. There lies the risk, and although I was taken in by characters, the “normal” gestures or running of the train through the urban landscape scenes are a little too customary to warrant such an exposure. Whether or not this will bother you is hard to judge, but you will need to be a bit indulgent.
Racially, the movie is quite a curiosity. Lionel is black and his wife was white so their daughter, evidently, is métis. So far all is normal. Joséphine’s love interest and upstairs neighbour Noé is white. The family friend Gabrielle looks Caribbean. Still fine. Then we get to see his colleagues at the railways, the SNCF, and they are all black! Is there an SNCF line which hires only staff of African or Caribbean descent? Not very likely. And then there is Joséphine’s university: the professor and all the students are black! Not even at the university of Martinique, where most people are black, is it an easy feat to write yourself in for a course where not a single white or other raced student has written himself in. What is the point of this bizarre image? Even if they were part of some community (e.g. Caribbean), then that would make more sense showing it in opposition to another French community (say mainstream or Chinese) rather then an artificial submersion. But they are not part of a subculture (no more than their own individuality) nor are the SNCF colleagues or the students. It is a strange touch which is unrealistic and seemingly without purpose.
Overall 35 Rhums is a carefully crafted film well worth its time, despite its weaknesses. Make sure you are not tired when you go it, to be able to take in the rhythm, as you are taken along the tracks in the Parisian behind-the-scenes. Lionel and Joséphine will linger with you long after the lights are back on.