Something is off about many of the synopses I’ve read for this film:
Imdb: "The relationship between a father and daughter is complicated by the arrival of a handsome young man."
Netflix: "This heartfelt slice-of-life drama by filmmaker Claire Denis tells the story of widower Lionel (Alex Descas), a train driver, and his grown daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop). The two spend most of their time together, but change is in the cards. A neighbor (Grégoire Colin) becomes attracted to Josephine, a family friend retires and Lionel tries to maintain a friendship with his ex-girlfriend (Nicole Dogue)."
Metacritic: "A widowed conductor, looking forward to retirement, lives with his grown daughter in a Paris suburb. When a neighbor starts to show interest in his "little girl", the conductor tries to adjust."
None of the synopses are “wrong” so to speak, but I think trying, with a series of brief words, to make explicit what is deeply implicit in the film does a certain injustice to the film’s story, if "story" is what it should be called. It is a film, in so many ways, in which nothing really happens, and all of the above synopses seem to be trying to explain the film in terms of “what happens.” Part of the problem with those synopses, unless you are already a fan of the director, is that they fail to stir up any kind of interest because “what happens” sounds, well, pretty boring, right? I couldn’t help but be reminded, with those synopses, of the Seinfeld episode, “The Comeback,” in which Elaine, rents a film, with a title, clearly inspired by art-house cinema, called The Pain and the Yearning, and the film’s description is “An old woman experiences pain and yearning.” 35 Rhums might sound, if you try to describe it, very much like The Pain and the Yearning. And if you try to describe it with any kind of enthusiasm to your friends, they’ll perhaps think a) your life must be very dull indeed, b) you are a film snob who has lost touch with reality, or c) you are trying to be a film snob and not fooling anybody.
35 Rhums, I think, defies any succinctly worded description; it must be experienced on its own terms and in its own time. But if one is willing to do that –let the film be what it is – the reward is immense. I admit, when I first sat down to watch it, I had to make a conscious effort to relax into the pace of the film. During the first several minutes – watching train tracks run and weave, watching a man smoking a cigarette, watching the tracks again, from day into night – I knew I would have to re-set my internal film metronome; the pacing and storytelling of this would be much different than the film I had seen most previously, Star Trek, every scene of which urged me to BE EXCITED. (And Star Trek was, actually, a lot of fun. )
After having said 35 Rhums is not a film that submits easily to words, I guess I’m going to have the audacity now to try to write about it. I expect I’ll fail in many ways, but I want to try nonetheless because the experience of the film was such an extraordinary one, and I want to try to respond in some way. I had a halting conversation afterwards with the friend I was with – we both began sentences and finished them lamely and then sat in silence. And then tried to speak again. However much we failed, though, to express ourselves and our thoughts, our silences were peaceful somehow, not awkward. That may say more about our friendship, which is a close one, than about the film, but I think it does say something about the film, too, which had nestled its way somehow into our experience of being for that evening.
But I haven’t said much about the film itself yet. As the synopses indicate, it is, indeed, about a father and a daughter who live together in an apartment in Paris or on the outskirts of Paris, certainly not the Paris of films we usually see, but one that is contained by the bounds of the rather small lives this father, Lionel, a train driver, and his daughter, Josephine, a student. And so what we see is relative to their day-to-day life – their apartment, the train tracks, a favorite bar/café, a classroom, a neighbor’s apartment. The film beautifully, in small ways and with very few words, builds our conception of the relationship between the two and of the significance of each to the other – the buying of a rice cooker, the cooking and sharing of a meal, the fetching of slippers, the listening to the sounds of each other going about some household task – we don’t need to be told that these two, in their quiet rhythm of life in the apartment, are deeply at home with one another.
Their bond and the satisfaction of that bond is set against three other characters in the film who live, in contrast, in a kind of isolation and loneliness:
Gabrielle, a neighbor, who drives a taxi by day, who seems cheery and kind, but who is alone when at home, and though she seems to have known Lionel and Josephine for a significant amount of time, cannot quite break into the bond they share, though clearly she longs to;
Noe, another neighbor, a young man, who lives alone in his dead parents’ apartment, and whom we first meet when he comes home, hears music coming from Lionel and Josephine’s apartment, and begins to move towards their door, but backs away and continues up the stairs, stumbling over a bike before he enters he own dark, untidy apartment;
and last, Rene, a co-worker of Lionel’s, forced into retirement, and even while surrounded by his well-wishing co-workers giving their loving farewell gifts, cannot quite hide his loneliness and despair. Each of these three are alone, and while they live, continuing on the track set before them, they seem to go doggedly, without purpose.
Lionel and Josephine’s relationship alone is what perhaps keeps them from the same lonely isolation and purposelessness. Lionel’s job is a job, that’s all; he seems to genuinely care for his fellow workers, but one doesn’t sense anything deeper in the relationships beyond the general camaraderie that comes from sharing a particular job’s world. Josephine appears to be a diligent student; she speaks intelligently and with some interest in the classroom; she plays soccer; she has a job - but as with Lionel, these activities don’t seem to bring her any particular purpose or joy. Josephine might be Noe, had both, instead of one, of her parents died; Lionel might be Rene if he did not have Josephine. Their love for and care for each other is a gravitational center to which they can always, and do, return. But Josephine is a young woman at the beginning of life and Lionel is closing in on the end of his, and it’s clear, the film says to us, that they cannot remain indefinitely in this circle of quiet warmth that they are to each other – and they are both conscious of this.
Noe’s and Josephine’s attraction to one another is one indicator of the inevitable break between Lionel and Josephine that must happen at some point. And I love the way the film sets up this tension among the three characters, a tension that is both immediate – in the sense that the three must interact with each other in social situations – and far-reaching because it indicates something deeper, something that must eventually change between the father and daughter.
Noe is an odd character. While I felt at home with Lionel and Josephine – though both are to some extent inscrutable, not least because they speak so little – Noe’s presence brings an unease to the film, both because of who he is personally and because of what his presence indicates for Lionel and Josephine. The unease stems partly from physical space of his apartment – uncared for and untidy, old couches and bits of trash on the floor – he doesn’t seem to belong there. He never has milk; he doesn’t know where his aspirin is and when he’s asked for some, he shuffles for it aimlessly among the random items on his shelf. He leaves his window open when he leaves for a few days, and Lionel must go up and shut it when it begins to bang in the wind at night. Noe’s apartment stands in another contrast to the neat, if small and rather spare, space where Lionel and Josephine live. Their space clearly belongs to them in the way that a home belongs to people who love each other – the home is cared for because they care for each other and that space is an extension of themselves, for each other. Noe would never paint his walls as Josephine has done to hers.
And yet, Noe is not, in the end, a character one mistrusts – he is directionless and alone, and who he is builds our unease, but he is certainly not a threat because of who he is personally – the threat that he is comes primarily from his potential in breaking up what has been a close party of two. The film delicately moves us back and forth between an unease with Noe and an attraction for Noe (and he is decidedly attractive), a back and forth that surely mirrors Josephine’s own feelings. One scene perfectly captures this back and forth – a scene in which Lionel, Josephine, Noe, and Gabrielle are all together – “together as a family again” as Gabrielle says at one point with a forced brightness and longing – Noe kisses Josephine, and she kisses him back, but then pushes him away; but when he begins to leave – as if accepting her rejection - she pulls him back to her, and they sit down together, at an awkward distance, against a wall. The scene is beautifully understated – the feeling and drama runs almost entirely beneath the surface, but it says so much about the primary tension in the film. With Josephine, we feel it’s so difficult to know what to want – we want Noe for her, and yet we do not want her to leave the solid warmth and security of the relationship with her father. We know what she is leaving – we do not know, quite, what she is moving towards. We know, only, that she will need to move soon.
The film builds so slowly and with such small moments (indeed, it didn't feel as if it was even building at all), I was not quite prepared for the emotional impact of the end. To say it held emotional impact is strange, however, because nothing really happens - nothing specifically on screen, that is. The genius of the film is such that it was able to overwhelm me at the end by virtue of the small moments that had come before and to make me weep when that “nothing” of the end happened – when Lionel’s friend plays the piano and I hear the sounds of a party in the background, when Lionel drinks his 35 shots, and when Lionel takes the rice cooker out of the package from which it had never been removed. Those nothings were, beautifully, everything.