Claire Denis chameleons among genres, themes, techniques, locations and seeming degrees of professionalism. The constant is a preference for a regular company of actors, crew and musicians. Those acquainted only with her more frenetic work will be surprised, and moved, by her contemplative 35 Shots of Rum/35 Rhums.
A rewarding evocation of human relationships, thoughts lying too deep for tears, the hour-and-two-thirds moves along unhurried in its pacing. The intensely spare style seems appropriate, for the director-cowriter’s model was Late Spring, and, with works of six other contemporary directors also bearing the stamp of Yasujiro Ozu plus two late, restored color works by that Japanese giant, this forms the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s dual anniversary homage “Ozu and His Afterlives.” (Ozu is currently represented as well in Japan Society’s tribute to the late Donald Richie.)
The Frenchwoman ought to have cited the Japanese’s Early Summer, too. Indeed, with Tokyo Story as completion of that Noriko trilogy, their theme has been adapted to this her 2008 film along with the tatami-mat minimal movement and low placement of Agnès Godard’s camera on characters who “are not much of a talker [but] make me feel better.” This from René (Julieth Mars Toussaint), an urban train driver bound into a retirement so upsetting that he despairs of empty, family-less life. The taciturn fellow driver who comforts him is Lionel (Alex Descas, who as usual Denis gets into black gear and onto a black motorcycle), dependable and stolid and raising daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop, since then another Denis repeater). She is a young woman studying for a degree and to his concern working nights in a music store. Her German mother long dead, the widower is still attractive in middle-age prime but has no inclination towards a love life or, for that matter, any outside life.
Lionel is popular with and respected by African immigrant coworkers, so the solitariness is his by choice, his whole being devoted to the lovely daughter. She reciprocates, as serenely quietly as he, and is not entirely kidding in assumed hurt at his insistence that she live her own life and not worry about him.
Their relationship is reputedly based on the director’s single-parent grandfather’s raising her mother, while the assimilated Ozu films surely reflect that director’s lifelong bachelorhood spent with his mother. So close are film father and daughter that both buy surprise nearly identical electric rice cookers for their modest but pleasant apartment which shows the kitchen almost exclusively. Were this a different type of film, a different tone, such closeness might raise antennae, as in the two’s later trip in a camper and shared sleeping blanket; such suspicion is probably an American rather than European reaction, and here the father-daughter relationship is no more than one among three.
Upstairs neighbor Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) loves her work as a taxi driver, loves the Joséphine she has mothered for years, and loves Lionel as a woman loves a man, though he remains aloof to her wishes. In the single past instance revealed, in writing she had in effect proposed to him, and her face gives her away, but she never gives voice to her heart.
With an aged cat and his deceased parents’ clutter, Noé (Grégoire Colin) lives in his inherited flat. He does a good deal of work-related travel but has his eye on Jo, who does not, or will not, recognize or acknowledge anything beyond a long friendship. In a downpour, Gab’s taxi breaks down taking the four of them to a concert, and as they dry off and eat in a bar that has remained open for them, young Noé and Jo slow-dance as wonderfully as Stan and his wife in equally serene Killer of Sheep.
Still she remains adamant, or oblivious. In angry despair he accepts a job somewhere in Africa, thus precipitating her despair and angry reaction. So finely nearly wordless is the whole, however, that, twice broached and twice pictured, the title game or ritual is never explained, indeed may in the end be a shaggy dog story.
Keep in mind what is said about still waters. In skilled hands, a silent touch or look speaks volumes.
(Released by The Cinema Guild; not rated by MPAA.)