Isn’t this film about a people who have withdrawn into private life? Aren’t they just philistines, people without wider interests than their everyday life? Yes, but in historical period we live today, in the 21st century, when too many philistines are just feverishly predatorily make careers and try to accumulate more money and property while hating actual or potential rivals, the heroes of Claire Denis’ film live with gentleness and warmth for one another. They are silently noble. They are emotionally delicate. Their humility is without any affectation. They have small local jobs here and there. And they love one another without ecstasies and the pomp. They are people of the shadow. Socio-hierarchically they are habitually checkmated, but in comparison with those who checkmate them they carry nobility. They radiate a quiet decency of being silenced by the noise of predatory and vain world.

The film opposes the monstrous industrial panoramas in sharp focus and protagonists of the film – human beings who, as if, don’t belong here, to a world made for endless tracks and wagons with bright windows behind which we cannot see anything. In front of a background made of railway stations people seem out of focus, as if, it is not that transportation serves the people but people – to various transportation tools, constructions and needs. That’s how Claire Denis introduces the personages of the film to the viewers – like contours through dust, smoke and fog. In a world where technology is monarch, people look casually. It is the most humane among them became heroes of Claire Denis’ film.

By observing these people we come to feel that nobility hasn’t left the human race yet – it is in the quiet dignity of the main characters, in their very manner of walking through the space, in how they talking or contemplating about the world. The film is framed as a reference to R.W. Fassbinder’s “Merchant of Four Seasons (1974) where the most noble and admirable character – the street vendor Hans Epp – finally commits suicide by intentionally (and, may be, not without desperate demonstrativeness) drinking too many shots of vodka (soon after a heart attack) in the presence of his wife and amidst his friends and pub-buddies.

It seems that Claire Denis is suggesting here an alternative way for existentially sensitive people – to drink and… stay alive when life is unbearable – meaningless, absurd, vain and greedy for materialistic and ideological phantoms. The despair of decent people locked in anti-humane environment must include latently spiritual ability to live while putting themselves to the periphery of life in order to be able to silently keep their self-respect.

Among the swarms of commercial movies with stars-characters who arrogantly fight for their, and/or their causes – advantage with hubris and self-admiration, to see modest dignity in Claire Denis’ film is consoling and reassuring.

The acting of Alex Descas (Lionel – train operator), Mati Diop (his daughter Josephine, the political economy student), Gregorie Colin (Noe, Josephine’s future husband), Ingrid Caven/Fassbinder (German Aunt) – addresses the characters’ souls (distant from and independent from social circumstances) and deeper layers of their psyches, and for this reason it is an emotional oasis for human perception, amidst commercial action movies and situational acting.

Claire Denis
Claire Denis

France's director Claire Denis and France's actor Alex Descas pose during the photocall of the movie "35 rhums" during the 65th Venice International Film Festival at Venice Lido, on August 30, 2008. "35 rhums" is presented out of competition.   AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Claire Denis and Alex Descas

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Modern world where to make and to keep technology alive people are transformed into tireless masseurs of artifacts. Pay attention to the monstrosity of physical space registered in this shot, where dirt is mixed with soot and areas of burned matter.

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Dead monarchy of the technological world where the main character Lionel (Alex Descas) drives a train

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Lionel’s daughter Josephine (Mati Diop)

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Josephine’s mother died many years ago, and Lionel worries about his daughter’s future and looks at his old age loneliness

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Lionel and Josephine love each other deeper and at the same time are more distant than just fathers and daughters – they love in one another the human beings with their own destinies independent of their bond

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Lionel with his mistress, colleagues and friends and with glasses for rum, reminding him and us of Fassbinder’s Hans Epp

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Josephine and Noe (Gregoire Colin), her future partner in life

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We see here Noe before his wedding with Josephine. Usually people shine on and around their weddings, but Claire Denis emphasizes that Noe’s face-soul is in ontological shade. For him love doesn’t need legitimation through marriage license.