We need more movies like Claire Denis’s 35 Rhums. Beautiful in its composition, and subtle in the exploration of its themes, the film takes us on a ride (literally–we are moved around the city and banlieue-scapes of Paris in trains, taxis, buses, motorcycles, and vans) through the ordinary lives of its characters. Denis’s exploration of the familiar seems so spot-on not only because of the understated way in which she deals with interruptions in the ordinary, but also the diligence and precision with which she records the everyday as an emotionally charged ground for exploration. By painstakingly documenting small daily rituals and routines, Denis’s film helps us see how variations in the smallest facets of life become the record of momentous and often tragic events.Much of the emotional intensity of 35 Shots is staged in the apartment that Lionel shares with his daughter Jo, where the rhythms of daily life rule the action. Lionel takes off shoes in the hallway; Jo puts laundry in the machine and puts her headphones on to study; she prepares dinner and the two eat togehter. The film repeats these scenes over and again, to the extent that they condition our experience of the narrative. We see Lionel enter the apartment every night either after work or drinking with friends. We see him take off his shoes and walk down the hallway of his apartment to his bedroom. We see him put on his robe and get ready to take his shower. We become, in effect, sensitized to the fact that these are repeated actions, and can begin to look for variations in the manner that he carries out the routine. Instead of asking whether certain actions in the film will take place, we come to expect them, and in turn ask how the routines will change in response to events that take place outside of the apartment.
In this domestic space, we notice the subtlest variations, which stand out as a record of how characters manage the impact of events in the outside world. The way that Lionel takes off his shoes becomes an index of his state of sobriety. We notice that the only seated meal that Jo and her father share is the first in the film–a formal recognition of Lionel’s unexpectedly thoughtful gift of the rice cooker (in every subsequent meal, they are standing). On nights when Lionel is particularly tired or affected by some event of the day, he forgoes the shower. Jo listens at the bathroom door for subtle variations in the noises her father is making as he bathes. They become signifiers of his emotional state.
Jo manages this domestic space, and attempts to control it by constantly cleaning and cooking. Despite Lionel’s request that she stop trying to take care of him and live her own life, Jo feels compelled to make the home as blank a space as possible for the staging of everyday life. In turn, her impulse to clear the apartment of clutter is set off against Noe’s penthouse, which is riddled with clothing, old furniture, garbage, and eventually his dead cat. He is constantly out of milk–unable to keep the kitchen supplied with what is necessary to have a smooth daily routine. Though he tries to remove the debris from his life, he eventually decides instead to sell the place. It is too fraught with memories. In essence, it can never be a space of simple domestic life because it is packed with objects that carry emotionally charged associations.
If the apartment becomes the place where characters find sanctuary–or perhaps, most often seek comfort–in rhythms, the outside world becomes a set of sites that resist the search for flow that is nevertheless constant. The film opens with an extended sequence of trains, shot from both the inside of a cab and from Lionel’s perspective on the side of a track. Day turns to night. The trains move along and lights come on. Sometimes the noise of the trains passing is the smooth sliding of steel wheels on track. Sometimes we see the cab jerk to the side as it passes over a switch. We look for the reassurance of rhythm in the portrayal of commutes and labor. But there are only momentary sensations of in-flowness, punctuated by Lionel’s cigarettes and by shots of commuters banging into Jo and causing her to wince. It seems significant that Jo and Lionel only seem comfortable in the outside world when they are experiencing a kind of domesticized rhythm together: sharing the motion of the motorbike, or in the comfort of their awesome little van–which contains a kitchen and enough space to share a meal. To feel in tune with the world, they must take their domestic space with them.
Jo insists that she could “live exactly like this,” with her father; but of course, it is the interruptions in the rhythms of simple domestic life that drive the action of most of the film–and in effect, drive Jo precisely away from the life she shares with her father. The film suggests that while routine and ritual help us find comfort in the world, only interruption and exception drive us forward. That is: only interruptions in the narrative of routine can create forward motion that drives the plot. When Gabrielle’s taxi breaks down and the group must miss the concert, Lionel spends the night with a bartender and Jo reacts by trying to strip the apartment of memories of her mother. The characters are forced to stop moving, and in doing so, must confront what is in front of them. This happens again toward the climax of the film. Rene’s suicide on the RER tracks not only causes Lionel to stop his train, but also serves as the catalyst for Lionel and Jo to take a trip to Germany and visit the grave of Methilde.
I wonder whether Denis has set up a dichotomy between repetitive and forward motion, or if my reading of these two types of experiences in the world are necessarily set apart from one another in the film. Does ordinary experience require interruption for the reevaluation of self? Considering the final scene, I’m not exactly sure. Lionel celebrates the end of his current domestic life with his daughter by drinking the 35 Shots of Rum–a ritual whose origin goes unstated but which has a special significance for him. Here, Lionel turns to ritual in a case of celebration. It is the fusion of the repeatable or traditional and the exemplary or spectacular event. It is joy for his daughter and nostalgia for their already-lost life together that fuses the two.