Monday, January 25, 2010

35 rhums. (2009) Claire Denis

It's been quite a few years since I first encountered Haneke's Code Unknown. It was one of those viewings I'll never forget. I remember popping in the brand new R1 DVD and floating along for 118 minutes, and after seeping into its lasting, final sign-languaged scene, thinking, "Huh. Well -- OK." And that was that.

And that was that -- until I began discussing and dissecting all its elements with some friends. We realized that many of us had had the exact same reaction, but the more we talked we started to see this was something much more dynamic than we thought.

We sat down and watched it again and began to wonder and ponder together. Eventually we started to speak, and by the time we were finished with an elaborate post-viewing discussion I was left dazed and spellbound at how amazing it actually was. What I'd initially passed over was now washing over me. It takes more than one viewing when dealing with greatness.

Code Unknown has stood the test of time. It's one of those films you can go back to and watch over and over again. You can always draw new insights, unlocking wonderful filmic codes with each viewing.

It's been seven years and at least 800 films since I had this unique experience, but last weekend I came across something I think might be quite similar; I've been smacked in the same masterpiece kind of way, this time by a brand new little French film, a quiet ensemble piece called 35 Shots of Rum.

Claire Denis is known for weaving slow-paced stories involving fantasy and flight and the psychology of the character rather than a forward linear drive. It's the typical French style that Americans tend to hate. They'll say it didn't go anywhere, it didn't do anything, that it was plotless, meandering into some tedious unfocused pit.

I knew what I was getting into with Denis at the controls, and as I sat with this more subdued light and sound, this quiet, more careful directorial guidance, and these intense feelings of great desire and hope, I saw a relationship between a father and daughter that one could only hope for in every day life -- a beautiful relationship, but in a sort of disembodied film; a beating familial heart wrapped in uncracked cinephilic code.

As with Code Unknown, I knew I'd encountered something very profound that I couldn't quite put a finger on. How fortunate what happened to me next: strolling away from the theater and around the city, trying to consider what I saw, I continued trying to put the missing pieces together, only to continue strolling too much and miss the next train home. With an hour left to kill until the next train's departure, I ended up (where else?) at a Borders Bookstore.

I walked into the store and the magazine rack instantly taunted me. There were just a few copies left of the Winter Film Quarterly, and inside was Yvette Bíró's unbelievably insightful article on 35 rhums. I'd just left the theater only a few minutes before, and in front of me was a cover story on the puzzling film I just saw. This article, it turns out, was my way out of the maze.

Bíró's review "argues that Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum combines repitition and ellipsis to harmonious effect in telling a minimalist story about a Parisian father and daughter. Comparison is made with Beau travail and Nénette et Boni," (two earlier works from Ms. Denis).

I just recently blogged about the ellipsis in Lorna's Silence, although there I believe I referred to it as a "hard edit". And it is hard there, because it's so sudden, so unexpected, so, "What happened? Oh no!" But these ellipses, or edits, are not as "hard" in 35 rhums. There are many but we don't notice them at first. There are at least five or six that I can think of after a first viewing. (I'm certain there are even more than that.) But we're hit here with a new kind of "watching rhythm" which throws the mind into a different mode of understanding.

We normally have action/consequence in most of what we see, but here we're so busy piecing consequence together we rarely notice the missing action, like we did in that hard (jarring) edit in Lorna's Silence.

Of Bíró's two ideas, the repitition is more self-evident. It's usually used in opposition to ellipsis, but here in Denis's construct they work in tandem. Repitition is found in the daily life of the inhabitants of an apartment complex, the every day rituals of the father and daughter, the normality of daily living: cooking, cleaning, their laundry, their work. Repetition and normal life provide us a glimpse at the loving relationship between father and daughter with a "narrative economy," that sets the tone for what Bíró calls the "poetic sensuality" of the story.

The scene that best illustrates ellipsis happens when the group's car breaks down on their way to a concert. Our four characters have to push their dead vehicle in pouring rain and take shelter in a shabby little restaurant. There they carry on with what should have been a great night out -- eating, drinking and dancing together. Glimpses at what is to come are seen in a kiss from one couple and a suggestive dance from another (the second couple unintended). And then the ellipsis: we cut to three of them on their way home on a train, instead of four. We think we may know where the fourth is but we've had nothing to show us exactly what happened. All three on the train are intensely silent. Relations at this point shift dramatically, and it's all from something we never saw. The viewer is left to interpret the action from the consequence alone even as we are simultaneously trying to interpret the consequence. It feels like we're using that 90% of the latent portion of the brain, that place we don't often need when we usually see the action first, followed by the explained consequence.

Were the film only made of the repitition, I would have fallen asleep. Were it only made of ellipses, it would've been far too Lynchian for such a lovingly crafted family drama. Denis uses the techniques together so that it surges the almost "non-narrative" forward. It keeps us thinking in all three possible directions, an intertwining past, present, future. After time with the stories of the four main characters, it's no longer plot that we find ourselves following, but rather the emotional state of the story's tender folk.

And this is why the acting must also be classified as superb. In an almost word-less emotional state, fragile and sometimes unspoken, the acting is the icing on the cake that showcases an incredible group achievement.

I use this blog to try to put words to my own film reaction, how I "sweep" away at what has settled after an initial dusting experience. People like Yvette Bíró are a wholly different variety -- they write articles that explain why we love what we see, even if we sometimes can't put it to words.

A wonderful, loving portrait is painted in 35 Shots of Rum, one that's even better when someone who really understands it tells you why it's such an achievement.

I can't wait until it comes out on DVD and I can sit with it once again. I can't wait until others latch on to its beauty. I can't wait to find those who'll search out words with me, describing how repitition and ellipsis are really the key to ourselves.

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