No deserts here, no Foreign Legion hunks, no exotic Africans - this film is thickly Parisian, a far cry from Claire Denis’ African movies. It revolves around four central characters who all live in an HLM and a fifth character, an outsider. The four are: Lionel, a train driver on the RER (Alex Descas); his daughter, Joséphine or Jo (Mati Diop), a student probably at Nanterre, the University of Paris X; Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a taxi driver and (we learn late in the film) a former lover of Lionel; and Noé (Grégoire Colin), an opaque young man whose job keeps him traveling to far places. The outsider is René (Julieth Mars Toussaint), Lionel’s friend, another RER train driver who retires about mid-film.
That paragraph needs some explaining. “HLM” refers to rent-controlled housing, some private, some governmental, for low income people. These are relatively small buildings with interesting architecture and only 20 or so apartments (very different from the big blocky things the U.S. puts up for public housing). Because of the small number of apartments, neighbors can become close friends as in this film. The HLMs were built in the outer suburbs of Paris where the poor, especially first- and second-generation immigrants, live. Lionel, for example, is Caribbean. Again this pattern reverses the U. S. model where the suburbs are populated by the rich, and the poor live in city slums. “RER” stands for Regional Express Network. These are commuter trains that travel many miles to bring the poor in from the outer suburbs to work in the inner city. As for Nanterre, after the “événements” of 1968, the government broke up the Sorbonne’s monopoly and created various branches of the University of Paris, some in the outer suburbs. Nanterre is number ten of these universities, outstanding in economics, politics, and other social sciences. Judging from the paper Jo is presenting before her class, I’m guessing that’s where she’s studying.
The plot is quite simple. The father and daughter, Lionel and Joséphine, are extraordinarily tender and close. Each takes care of the other. Cab driver Gabrielle is interested in Lionel, but he keeps pushing her away. Noé is interested in Jo, but he seems unable to express his feelings. One night, the four set out for a concert in Gabrielle’s taxi, but a heavy rain starts, and the car breaks down. The four end up late at night in a bar-restaurant, and various people dance with one another. Back at the HLM Noé announces he is moving to Gabon for a well-paying job. Jo is terribly upset, and the film ends with Jo and Noé getting dressed for their wedding. Lionel then drinks the 35 rhums to celebrate their future.
The opening, the first six minutes of this film, under the credits, consists of many shots of the RER trains, their tracks, the long stream of cars, their passengers crushed together, their lighted windows, but above all, the tracks. Visually, the tracks define a path for the camera and a final destination.
I think Claire Denis is introducing—please pardon the word—a symbol. The tracks define your path—your life—and they come to a final, definite end point. The character who most develops this idea is René, Lionel’s friend and fellow driver. He retires (his end point), and he becomes terribly depressed. Apparently, he doesn’t like this driving the same train down the same track day after day. Yet without it, he has nothing, and he commits suicide. As if to link his death to the tracks, he suicides so as to leave his body at a time and place where Lionel’s train is bound to encounter it.
I think Denis expresses this idea in a curious shot in which the camera lingers on a picture René has pasted in his locker. (Denis likes to include odd little shots and scenes this way.) The picture shows a performer managing dozens of plates balanced on thin rods. This image follows on a shot of the huge electronic map of the positions of all the lines and trains. I think the locker picture represents the way René sees his life: a balancing act with a huge number of trains. The rods and plates may represent their axles and wheels.
I think this track-as-life idea also informs another odd scene: a strange little fantasy Lionel has just before he finds René’s body. He and Jo are on a horse, riding at first across the tracks as if free, but then alongside, the tracks. This is their life, hurrying together toward that final inescapable end point, death. Death is represented twice in the film, once by René’s death and more casually by the death of Noé’s cat.
The last scene of the film poses more of a puzzle than the first long sequence. The opening ends with Jo buying a white rice cooker. Then Lionel comes home with a red cooker he had bought. Evidently they had decided they needed a rice cooker and mistakenly both bought one. Jo never shows him the one she bought, tenderly letting him think that he bought the rice cooker they will use. And they do. But at the end of the film, Jo having apparently gone off with Noé, Lionel finds the white rice cooker with its childish teddy bear decoration. In the last shot, he presses the lid down tightly as if to close off that whole part of his life. I thought the scene touching, but less connected to the rest of the film than I would have liked. Or maybe it’s an expression of Denis’ ultimate freedom as a filmmaker.
A second symbol is smoking. As part of the long opening train sequence, Denis makes detailed shots of Lionel lighting up, smoking, and stamping out the butt. Again and again in the remainder of the film we see the characters lighting up and smoking. And almost the first words of the film are Jo’s saying to Lionel, “You smell like cigarettes.” Why all this attention to smoking? Granted, in French movies, the characters smoke a lot, but why include so many shots focused on smoking? I think Denis is introducing a second theme or symbol. This is a film with very little dialogue. The characters don’t say what’s on their minds, and twice the others remark on Lionel in particular as saying little. I think Denis is contrasting words coming out of the mouth with smoke going in.
In the same vein, she also pays a lot of attention to eating, and of course the title and ending focuses on drinking. I see this as her preoccupation with the idea that our personal identity, our very being, is imposed from outside in, not from inside out. What you eat, drink, or smoke, the tracks, determine you—or at least René and Lionel.
The contrast between tracked and free comes when the four of them pile into Gabrielle’s cab to go to a concert. Gabrielle’s cab doesn’t run on tracks. She is relatively free and she loves her job, unlike poor René. The car breaks down, and a fierce rainstorm comes—all this suggests chaos, very different from those orderly tracks. Then in the bar where they take refuge different members of the quartet change partners and express various feelings of love, jealousy, anger—again a formlessness that is the opposite of the RER tracks.
But it isn’t exactly formlessness. Claire Denis has modeled this film on a famous movie by Yasujiro Ozu, Late Spring (1949). (The Film Club saw it in December 2010.) Reviewers and critics have written a lot about the relation between the two films. Ozu also deals with a daughter who is deeply attached to her father, who enjoys caring for him, and who he and other relatives feel must marry. In Ozu’s film, the father pretends he is going to get married and so forces the daughter’s hand. It ends with her preparing for her wedding. Claire Denis follows the broad outline of Ozu’s plot, and often her film corresponds scene-for-scene to Ozu’s. But the two films are completely different. Denis’ is in color, takes place in France (and Germany), and involves a train driver. Ozu’s film is totally involved with Japanese traditions, opening with a class on the tea ceremony, and its plot depends on the dominant role of elders in Japanese families. Ozu’s film is poignant, quiet, and oblique; Denis’ is far more rambunctious, upbeat, and explicit.
Why would a richly talented filmmaker like Claire Denis choose to base her film on a well-known classic? I think she is again developing her idea of getting off the track. Yes, this is based on Late Spring, but look how different it is. I think that’s the reason for the trip to Germany that corresponds to a trip to Kyoto in the Ozu film. Here it develops Ozu’s theme of respect to elders. And, as with Ozu, it leads into the final episode, the preparation for the wedding.
You can get a sense of this director’s psychological style by comparing this film not only with Late Spring, but with her better-known Beau Travail (1999). The two are totally different in plot: one set in the African desert with the Foreign Legion and involving a murder; this film set in Paris and Germany and involving an intense father-daughter relationship. Yet both films show the same style of many unexplained scenes; little dialogue; emotional states expressed by small actions; and occasional scenes with no apparent reason for their being in the movie. The film shows the same tension between fixed routines and emotional change. Both develop the idea of personal identity as something imposed from outside in, not inside out. The 35 shots in the title refer to some personal code as opposed to the code imposed by the Legion. In an interview, she said that she created a scene giving an origin for the ritual, but she took it out in her elaborate editing process. The personal theme, the interest in a ruling code, carries over.
That personal style defines a remarkable series of films. Claire Denis is unquestionably an auteur and a filmmaker whose work belongs decisively to the twenty-first century. French critics place her within the cinéma du corps, a group of directors for whom the body, its environment, and the action of that environment on the body define the emotions and actions of their films. It’s an exciting development, and Claire Denis is surely one of those who make it exciting.