Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 18, 2009 4:02 pm 
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GRÉGOIRE COLIN, MATI DIOP

People moving together and apart and Claire Denis weaving her subtle magic

Alex Descas (Late August, Early September, Boarding Gate) stars with Denis perennial favorite the "sexy, soulful" Grégoire Colin, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue, and Jean-Christophe Folly in a deceptively simple-seeming film about a group of apartment neighbors and coworkers, mostly black. Lionel (Descas), an RER train conductor, has raised his daughter Josephine (Diop) alone since she was a little girl. She's grown up now, a student at the faculty of anthropology who works in a music shop. They live together as a couple, each caring more for the other than for anybody else but increasingly realizing this doesn't make sense any more. Neighbor and ex-girlfriend Gabrielle (Dogue) still evidently hankers after Lionel. Noé (Colin), also down the hall, lives in the cluttered apartment of his deceased parents, goes on long rips, and hankers after Jo. They're all stuck. And all very close to each other.

The engines of the plot are the retirement of one of Lionel's longtime coworkers and friends; a party; a missed concert; a bad storm; a funeral; and the death of Noé's 17-year-old cat.

Denis' special touch shows in her handling of family intimacy, the way a routine event can suddenly shift into a life-changing moment. The apartment block seems ordinary and mundane but the relationships resonate from the first shots. A car that breaks down in the rain leads to a party in a closed bar with music that lights up the theater. A long stare into a woman's eyes speaks volumes. A pair are jogging on a wet day and the guy jumps in the river on a whim. His cat dies and Noé decides to move to Gabon. And an extra rice cooker taken out of its box means a new start. Almost everything is communicated with faces and very little exposition or dialogue.

It's interesting how the chameleon Grégoire Colin blends in with the black people. His own face seems stained and tawny, his look gypsy-like and sly. He slips in and out of some of Denis' films almost casually, seemingly unnecessary yet essential, mysterious yet making them more real. Here he reappears at the end almost phantom-like, after he seemed to have left. Music, rain, trains, and a motorcycle become symbols of change.

After the group has been established, especially the intimacy between Lionel and Jo, comes the retirement of fellow trainman René (Julieth Mars Toussaint), which leads to the "35 rum shots" evening--but Lionel stops short, saying the occasion doesn't warrant going to the whole 35. René is sad and lost without his work to define him. He speaks grimly of living to 100, but will come to a tragic end after appearing alone at a bar the group frequents and taking a sad ride in an RER engine car with Lionel.

Then comes the concert, the car breakdown, and the impromptu, and wonderful, party in the bar the group persuades the owners to reopen. There are jealousies--Lionel's disapproval of Noé's intimate dancing with Jo; Gabrielle's of Lionel's dancing with the beautiful café owner (Adele Ado); but the warmth of the group is confirmed in this subtle, intense sequence.

Sequences in which Jo disputes sociopolitical issues and Franz Fanon in a university class and is approached by fellow sudent Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly) at the music shop (he invites her too late to the concert and gives her a romantic bouquet with a note) are a bit more artificial and expository but help show Jo's developing life away from her father. There's also a trip to Germany that shows who Lionel's wife (and Jo's mother) was. But this is explanation that only shows us how much we don't know.

Denis mostly, as usual, makes us do the work, but the job isn't as tricky or complicated as in her previous (and remarkable) The Intruder. This film seems like the essence of what good contemporary French filmmaking is about: the subtle surface, the hidden depths behind ordinary appearances, the shifting amber lights in soft dawns and sunsets by Denis' consummate DP Agnes Godard; the rain, the warm café. I'm indebted to Variety's Jay Weisberg for pointing out that the original music is by the Tindersticks, and the enveloping song in the bar is the Commodores' "Nightshift"; and he also points wisely to the importance of Judy Shrewsbury’s costume designs, which are notably lovely in the case of Adel Ado's dark red dress in the bar and the white sheath-like one worn by Mati Diop for a funeral--the occasion when Lionel finally drinks the 35 shots of rum.

35 Shots of Rum/35 Rhums opens in Paris February 19, 2009; part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2009. Raves from some of the French print sources that count most: Libération, Le Monde, Le Point, Cahiers du Cinéma, Les Inrockuptibles.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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