By Karina Longworth
The new Claire Denis film is a Claire Denis film, and there are certain givens that this entails: nothing is spelled out, behavior is highlighted over action or incident, and we’re asked to spend a decent chunk of time getting to know the characters and observing their typical behavior before the status quo is changed just slightly and the film’s concerns start to come into focus.
But, rather shockingly, the new Claire Denis film is also a bittersweet family movie, and the work you put into it early on is paid back in surprisingly tender dividends.
For the first time, Denis is working here with a virtually all-black cast, and as my companion at the press screening noted, there’s a bit of irony that this film is making its North American debut alongside "Medicine For Melancholy," a film about a tentative connection between two racially self-conscious young black people which was not only inspired by Denis’ "Friday Night" but concieved as a generational update. Though Denis’ characters don’t discuss race as compulsively as Jenkins’, it’s not a matter off their minds. Josephine (Mati Diop), the daughter of widowed train operator Lionel (Alex Descas), seems to be studying it at university.
"Rhums" takes place in and around the working-class apartment complex where Lionel and Josephine live in quasi-incestuous bliss, though from the start Denis conveys the sense that this arrangement can’t last for much longer. One neighbor, Gabrielle, clearly has a thing for the father, while another, Noe, cautiously courts the daughter. This is apparently how this ad hoc family has functioned for ages, but the film’s centerpiece scene sets a reconfiguration of this unit into motion. A night out that doesn’t go as planned leaves the foursome stranded in a cafe where they drink, flirt and dance to cheesy 70s soft rock. Rebelling against his perceived responsibilities to Josephine and Gabrielle’s need, Lionel leaves the other three watching as he hits on an attractive waitress, and waiting up at home for him to return from his walk of shame. Lionel’s disappearing act pushes father and daughter to reconcile their closeness and the tragedy responsible for it, leading to a surprisingly touching and uncynically romantic conclusion.
Much of the film plays like a mystery, as we slowly piece together the roots of each relationship and figure out along with the characters where they’re going and what kind of change they’ll have to endure to get there. Cinematographer and frequent Denis collaborator Agnes Godard paints urban Northern France in muted colors, a maze of highways and train tracks weaving around towering apartment buildings. These cool, geometric fling cabinets for wage workers are, for Noe and Lionel, imprisoning, but for Josephine and Gabrielle, the walls store memories and promise that can’t be easily discarded. This locus of loneliness and longing is also their only outlet for love.