It’s been some time since I’ve put pen to paper (or digits to keyboard, as it were) to hash out my thoughts on the seventh art. Not much to say about it other than that, um, I’m sorry.
What then would be the film that would bring me out of this half-assed early retirement?
In the past few months, numerous films have impressed, wowed even, but few of the recent crop achieve the level of unadulterated awesomeness that is Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums. Her masterpiece wined, dined and shot a rum-soaked arrow through my cinema-loving heart.
In a field of strong contenders, it is the deftness with which she tells her tale that stands out the most. The performances she scores from her actors, the expertly executed elliptical editing, the generous cinematography and the nuanced narrative itself are all remarkable. But it is the way she makes it all appear so effortless that makes me gaga.
I will attempt to refrain from exposing the slightest bit of plot or even the characters’ relationships to each other here. Forgive me, but one of the singular joys of the experience of watching this film is in the reveal. One character will enter and greet another. It is only through a gesture or a word minutes, sometimes scenes later, that their relationship to each other is made clear. The same is true of each character’s relationship to his or her environment. In a lesser work, this deliberate exposition might obfuscate to the point of frustration. But in 35 Rhums, it invites you in, allows you to sit with the characters and get accustomed to their surroundings just as they do. Given certain of the protagonists’ uncertain stations in life, this is narratively and tonally fitting.
One character, seated at a bar, removes her jacket and smiles at the man next to her, who is not paying her too terribly much mind. The camera lingers on her exposed shoulders as she looks at him fondly. This is the way she wants to be seen, to be noticed. This gesture of the actress, of the camera and of the director speak to the sense of acute longing for connection that fills 35 Rhums.
The much ballyhooed stable of young neo-neo-realist directors would do well to take note. Their labored woebegone tales of those who live on the margins of society are too often concerned with eliciting sympathy from the audience. It’s a cart-before-the-horse problem, I suspect. The audience is never told how to feel in Denis’ film. Any sympathy felt for the characters is earned. What’s more, the graceful way Denis deals with identity – racial, ethnic, familial, community-based or otherwise – never reads as a treatise, as many well-intentioned but undergrad-thesis-like films that attempt to deal with those themes do. Instead, 35 Rhums only approaches the issue as the characters do, which is to say as a man walking up to a round of shots and taking a deep breath before imbiding would.
Again, forgive me for being vague, but I would encourage you to know as little about 35 Rhums‘ plot and story before going in. It will still look good in the harsh light of day.