Food, Trains and the Lived-In Cinema of Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hisen and Yasujiro Ozu

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09/17/2009 2:16 PM |


Even when Clarie Denis’ narratives are at their most intuitive and inscrutable, her actors come through loud and clear—I don’t know why Denis Lavant is dancing at the end of Beau Travail, or why Beatrice Dalle is mushing sled dogs at the end of L’Intrus, but it feels right, based upon what we’ve learned about them in the movie we’ve been watching. And that may be it— one of the pleasures of Claire Denis’ cinema is the time you get to spend with her characters (often played, as Melissa Anderson points out in her rave Village Voice review of Denis’ new 35 Shots of Rum, by familiar faces from earlier Denis movies). Her camera (well, hers and cinematographer Agnes Godard’s—another regular collaborator, that) lingers over faces, limbs, clothes, lights, shadows; “tactile” is a word that’s used a fair amount, because it alludes to the lusciousness of detail in Denis films, and maybe “lived-in” works as well, for the marvelous textures of people and places (sometimes, as in Friday Night, it’s hard to tell where the people stop and the place begins). 35 Rhums, which opened yesterday at Film Forum, has moved Nicolas Rapold to raise the possibility, in the lead film review of the current issue of the L, that “Denis has solved some basic problem of rendering experience in movies.”

I’m in the habit of describing many of my favorite films as “Asian movies with long scenes of the characters cooking and/or eating”—filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhang-ke, Tsai Ming-liang et al are linked as part of the festival-feted East Asian long-take style, but their link, and appeal, goes deeper than virtuosity or critically approved pacing. Cooking and eating—invariably the subject, in their films, of a long, mostly wordless, master-take scene—is perhaps the last activity you’d describe as “cinematic”, but of course it’s a necessary, pleasurable part of human experience. These scenes, then—with the play of light in the frame, and the camera rocking like a houseboat—assert that cinema isn’t about defusing a dirty suitcase bomb hidden at the top of the Eiffel Tower, but about people, spending time, in space. If this doesn’t sound lovely, and necessarily in line with cinema’s origins as a photographic medium, it’s because the American media-industrial complex and its economy of the spectacle has conditioned you to think otherwise.

This premise seems to inform Denis, too, even when her narratives are very accessible—35 Rhums is an easily followed story of a father, a daughter, and the two close neighbors with whom they seem to be falling out of and into love with. But in the film’s best, already famous scene, the main characters duck into a nearly deserted diner during a rainstorm, and dance to the Commodores’ “Nightshift”.

And it’s not really a spoiler, I don’t think, to reveal that 35 Rhums ends on a rice cooker.


It’s only appropriate, this nod to her fellow-travelers half a world (but often only a festival screen or two) away; indeed, 35 Rhums happens to be a loose remake of a film by the godfather of gracefully, vividly domestic Asian cinema, Yasujiro Ozu. Specifically, his Late Spring, another movie about an unmarried daughter and single father, also ending on the father and food. (This would be the plot derided as “sentimental and untroubling as a Hallmark special” by Richard Brody, in the WTF-iest review this New Yorker most serious film critic has filed in some time.)


Late Spring has been unofficially remade before (and not just by Ozu, who recycled family plots like you recycle socks): Hou Hsiao-hisen’s masterpiece Cafe Lumiere was dedicated to Ozu on the occasion of his centennial. The Hou film is similarly concerned with the father-daughter bond as it plays out over family meals, and has its emotional primacy threatened by the daughter’s long-term romantic prospects. As in Late Spring (but not 35 Rhums), the daughter’s intended in Cafe Lumiere is never on-screen, though we do see her spend time with another, platonic male friend her own age. In the Hou film, he spends all his time recording the sounds of Tokyo’s commuter trains.

In 35 Rhums, the father, played by Alex Descas, is employed as a driver of commuter trains in Paris. Both the Denis and Hou films linger on the trains as they pass by, as did Ozu, in his transitional “pillow shots”; in all cases, whether in Denis and Godard’s velvety nocturnes or Hou’s quiet, sublimated intersections, trains engender a transitional, contemplative state—in the reticent characters, and in the audience, whose job it becomes to reflect on the thoughts in the characters’ heads, and in our own, as the images float past.

You may be asking why, exactly, you’re supposed to go see a movie to watch people eat rice and ride trains, two things that are already pretty everyday integral parts of your life here in New York. The answer, I suppose, is that the things—the activities, states of mind, relationships and the ways they play out—that are really truly pretty integral parts of your life are rarely rendered in the movies with such gorgeous clarity.

Grateful thanks to The L‘s Michael Joshua Rowin for his observations.