Already a circuit hit at locations from Thessaloniki to Toronto, via Karlovy Vary and Venice, Claire Denis’s latest comes to the LA Film Festival. 35 Rhums is a quiet film of little incident but deep emotion; that it was inspired by Ozu’s similarly restrained film of a familial bond, Late Spring, comes as no surprise. Joséphine and her father Lionel live together in the Parisian apartment where she grew up, forming a family with neighbour Gabrielle, who carries a torch for Lionel, and Noé, whose easy relationship with Jo seems to have been prevented from blossoming into partnership by his inaction and the comfort of familiarity.
Denis’ discrete camera observes the mundane details of domesticity and gently shows how they both comfort and suffocate. Slightly forced, it makes time also for Jo’s anthropology class, where another suitor is waiting, and more affectingly for Lionel’s train-driving colleague not yet ready for retirement. Lionel seems happy driving his train, as does Gabrielle, though for no apparent reason beyond her friendliness she seems to annoy everyone around her; this reaches a head when the “family”, stranded with a broke-down car, takes refuge in an after-hours restaurant and Lionel has eyes only for the foxy owner.
It’s a terrific scene of looks and sexual tensions as the various couples dance to sweet soul music (always an important emotional activity for Denis). Lionel’s look of concern as Jo and Noé dance together is no different, however, from that when he sees her washing their outside windows the following morning, both times speaking volumes about the strength of their bond.
It’s testament to Alex Descas and Mati Diop that their relationship seems so full in light of the overall understatement, so much so that a couple of moments in the script are actually overdone: we well know that they are happiest when riding together on his bike or sleeping beneath the stars without having to be told (a couple of other moments – slippers, identification of a jacket we have seen moments before) are also oddly over-emphasised).
A not-entirely-unexpected moment of drama prompts a trip to the fairy spires of Lübeck and a cherishable cameo from Ingrid Caven as Jo’s grandmother and, finally, the eponymous ritual. Its meaning is left obscure, but as such it’s a fitting title for the film, so low-key as to be rather underwhelming, but implying serious and deeply-felt emotions.
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Image: Los Angeles Film Festival