Claire Denis delivers a nuanced portrayal of a relationship between a father and his grown-up daughter as their relationship reaches a defining moment moving from their symbiotic closeness to try to move beyond to start their own lives not without but beyond each other.
Denis uses many of her typical collaborators – Agnès Godard as cinematographer, Jean-Pol Fargeau on the script and ‘Tindersticks’ (lead singer, Stuart A Staples has written for Denis before on L’Intrus) for the scored parts of the film. It reminded me of Vendredi Soir where a chance meeting of a couple leads to a night of passion – but the film spends its time on the nuances of their mutual attraction as it builds. In Vendredi the Parisien buildings and skyline is the mesmeric presence throughout the film, shot by Godard so that the lights glimmer and create a beautiful cityscape to frame the stories within it. In that film, the city is thematically an ephemeral place where people have little contact, distracted and disconnected within their cars until they are forced to stop and made to touch. In 35 Rhums the city is there again but, even cinematically, plays a completely different role. It has been reconstituted because these are the lives of very different people and therefore seems to take on something of their perspective. Lionel is a train driver and the city is represented as a web of rails and moving trains through the high rises. Lionel and his daughter Josephine live in one such, near their neighbours including Gabrielle and Noé, pining for father and daughter respectively.
Godard, Denis and Fargeau are able to tell this story with great simplicity and yet embody the complexities that are present in relationships – the ebbs and flows of emotion between people as they seek to let each other go but can’t quite, or as they move in and out of desire or longing. Denis is unafraid to play the symbolic moments thrown up in these narratives (sometimes very literally) but they are blended so seamlessly into the narrative flow by the cinematography that there is no jarring or loss of dramatic impetus. (e.g. the death on the train rails). This moment of melodrama in 35 Shots almost jars because Denis is most powerful when she conveys the impact of an emotion and the state people are swept up into – visually and sonically – through moments of detail. Through Godard’s cinematography the visceral is conveyed through the visual. Early in the film, Lionel puts his foot into the slipper brought by his daughter – a resonating symbolic moment of their domestic symbiosis accentuated by the focus on that physical pleasure of slipping on our comfy shoes on getting home.
The performances are nicely underplayed, emotions seen passing through characters’ eyes in close-up. Gregoire Colin (a Denis regular) plays the courtly lover upstairs and the two central performances from Alex Descas and newcomer Mati Diop are absorbing in their simplicity – in keeping with the overall aesthetics of the film. Everything appears ordinary and flat on the surface (I’m reminded of the opening of L’Intrus with Colin’s character engaged in the domestics or Chocolat where Aimée sits idly on the back of the truck with Protée or where the legion soldiers in Beau Travail attend to their washing out in the desert); but in Denis’s films the flat surface is always slowly peeled away to reveal the depths of emotion that sit beneath – ordinary emotions create the dramatic tension in her films rather than melodrama.