35 rhums (2008)

20 06 2010

It’s probably not the smartest idea to start off a review by stating that I feel almost inadequate reflecting on a movie, but that’s pretty much the case here. I love Claire Denis, of course and I love this film’s chief influence, Yasujiro Ozu, but in describing this masterpiece I feel like I’m going through the motions. Not because I’ve become a less articulate writer (which is possible, I suppose) but because I’m just reciting my ideal vision for cinema. Words like gentle and low-key are inevitable and are likely to be overused. I’m going to namedrop Ozu probably more than once and I’m going to feel cheap doing so. While Ozu’s trademark is all over a story like this, the mastery is all Denis’ work. She’s at long last created a movie that manages to keep her more “dramatic” tendencies in check (Trouble Every Day this is not) but still avoid being too light or low-key as she was in Friday Night.

Let’s get the simple things out of the way: the movie looks, sounds,  and feels great. This isn’t much of a surprise, it’s expected of Denis. Even though she’s tackling something less sexual here (compared to Trouble Every Day) she still maintains, and perhaps elevates that level of cinematic sensuality. The characters are photographed in a distance from time to time, but everyone has at least one texture-filled close-up that has contains the visual weight of a sunset, or an ocean — perhaps this comparison is fitting since Denis and cinematographer, Agnes Godard treat us to a beautiful pillow-shot of a setting sun by an ocean towards the end.

There’s plenty of technical accomplishments to go around here, but as I already mentioned, it’s nothing out of the norm for Denis. What is out of the norm is the tightness of both her story (as small as it may be) and the relationships explored within the story’s central family. There’s plenty of scenes in which the “mundane” acts of daily life are photographed (obligatory Ozu comparison goes here) but they build up into an understanding of the characters and their habits. There’s not much talking, instead the heightened sound design, along with frequent Denis collaborators, The Tindersticks, make up a majority of the film’s sound. Hanging up jackets and putting one’s clothes in the washing machine are indeed unremarkable, but Denis’ passion for her characters is so obvious that these little events seem completely necessary.

Perhaps this all sounds like “art film” fodder and I guess it is, but even with overused analytical jargon, there’s still a very quiet, low-key (if you will) drama that warm and calm, yet shows the signs of your conventional plot points. There’s arguing after all, but like in real life, it’s simplistic and inconsequential. The characters simply move on from their disagreements, and we quickly return to their lives rather than being side-tracked in something as overbearing as “drama.” That last sentence sounds a little smug, it is, but after watching something that is so intimate and devoid of sensationalism as this, it’s hard to not scoff at the concept of a simple story.

This isn’t to get off-topic and trash a random movie, but following my viewing, I watched a few minutes of There Will Be Blood (an edited for TV version) and was reminded how that film’s boring “rise and fall” structure and stupid morality tale was not the exception but the norm. There’s simply too many movies even “art” ones that rely on something that ultimately does nothing more than distract us. There are few distractions in Denis’ film, instead we’re treated to constant observation. It’s like taking a graduate course in “people-watching” and never have I been so enthralled by events such as the ones that the characters here come across. Not since Ozu, I suppose. This isn’t close to being a carbon-copy, technical or otherwise. But it is the closest we’re going to get to the modern embodiment of his work. For that, I cannot thank Denis enough, this is a huge step for her and film-making in general.

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