Thursday, February 19, 2009
Claire Denis' new film 35 Rhums opens with a visual invitation to find a thrill in something exquisitely simple. We take flight with a speeding train, riding on the windshield through the afternoon sun of Parisian suburbs. Everything is of rust. Tunnels swallow us whole, give us dark, and spit us back into speed. We are effortlessly purposeful, effortlessly full; we are going somewhere. Characters and the far grayer pallets of their own journeys are spliced into this golden world--someone stands among strangers on the subway, someone waits for a train. With this, a structuring principle of the film is set; how do a daily ride home from work and a flight on the front of sun-soaked train speak to each other? Can we convince ourselves (or realize?) that the routine and light of life can be one and the same? Put another way, what is freedom?
This film takes great care with the concept of routine and the simple acts that compose it. Slippers, stairs and elevators, dinner, the sound of the shower, silences, lights turning off, hugs--Denis treats the smallest marks of humanity with such tender attention that they cease to be small, growing to form the gentile backdrop found in the best of Italian Neorealism and New Iranian Cinema. Indeed, the film is so concerned with routine that three of its main characters have jobs in transportation where days drift past by literally following the track, the lights, the route. There's immense comfort articulated in these strange spaces--cars, trains, motorbikes--in which movement and freedom are just an illusion as the mobility is confined to the same space, to a literal box, to a routine.
More than any other site in this film, the relationship between Joséphine (Mati Diop) and her father Lionel (Alex Descas) works in the subtleties of routine. Their love for each other moves deftly between the realm of long-time companionship and the more immediate space of solace, need, and affection. Daughter and father, they are an "old couple" as much as any, moving around each other in perfect, quiet rhythms, updating each other on when they will be home, and--in every word and action--referencing conversations that extend years into the past and sprawl into the future. Denis invites us to bask in the warmth and comfort of this womb of routine; This is a good life! she seems to be saying as Joséphine again puts her soccer shorts in the washer and sits down with her dad to a dinner that looks remarkably like the last.
This womb of routine is so comfortable it moves Lionel to ask, "We have everything here, why would we go anywhere else?" But of course, we must; the comforts of a routine-driven life would be unremarkable if they were all we had, if they stretched out into eternity without hesitation. Denis knows this better than she first lets on. 35 Rhums appears tonally occupied with the simple acts that make a day, but sequences of the mundane don't actually take up very much of the film. Denis manages to imply a backdrop of routine with relatively few strokes, freeing up her camera and narrative to focus on the breaks, the interruptions, and the surprises slatted into this landscape of the everyday. Joséphine and Noé go for a run as we feel they've done a million times before, but a punch of pure spontaneity makes this time exceptional. Our characters don't just find ways to take joy and comfort in work, but reach retirement and are forced to confront all the new questions and loneliness that it brings. Lionel doesn't just love what's right in front of him but goes searching for the thing more risky, more beautiful, more out of order. In his hung-over morning, Lionel pats the edge of the bed so Joséphine comes closer. He's emerging from years of contemplation when he says, "Jo, I want you to be free. You should go." Even though they are chronologically and emotionally very separate moments in the film, in hindsight I feel Lionel's words here in the same breath as his earlier declaration, "Why would we ever leave?" The paradox in play is a familiar one. We must force and embrace the break with routine in order to survive, just as we must embrace the routine itself. If we forget to cherish either of these conditions--those of the ordinary and the spontaneous--then we will be crushed.
Superficially, the film operates in the well-worn territory of the all-good-things-must-come-to-an-end varietal or some such age-old garbledyguck: A father struggles to let his daughter go, etc, etc, etc. Which is perhaps why it's immensely fulfilling to see Denis travel deep enough into the emotional roots of this cliché that she avoids it altogether. Mme. Denis constructs both routine and its interruptions as necessary, vibrant sites of life-making and love-making. She treats both orientations toward living (the Everyday and the 35 Rhum occasions) with such tender hands, such patience, carefully avoiding the glorification of one mode to the detriment of the other. The film becomes a passionate affair with living and a meditation on balance that can be summarized in much the same way as a well-run life: it triumphs through a simplicity rooted in and guided by love.
Lionel picks up Joséphine from work and they ride home together on the motorbike, wind in the face, hands gripping tight. It feels fast. The world opens up and suddenly just getting home brings us closer to life than ever.