Claire Denis’ “35 Shots” More Paris Than “Paris”

Two films open this week in New York that divide the Paris of our dreams from the Paris of the real. Cedric Klapisch’s Paris is a tourist board-approved attempt to capture the city and its characters by way of Art Nouveau facades and exaggerated lives. It stars Juliette Binoche. Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum is set in the outskirts of the city and inhabited by characters whose resumes are intentionally hidden. Both have their rewards, but one is candy, while the other is a new cuisine that tastes odd at first, but soon creates a craving.

Unlike Denis’ opaque narrative in 35 Shots, Klapisch’s Paris lives inside a clearly announced framing device that allows for neat stacks of characters: A dancer suffering from a literal broken heart (bad valves not l’amour fou)  quarantines himself in his apartment and ponders the lives of the French All Star Ensemble Cast he spies on from his terrace, as well as his postcard views.

In classic Klapisch fashion, the characters unknowingly cross paths, often in ways subtle enough to blur how they connect. This is less motivated by plot, than by the director’s desire to show us the city and the anxieties of its citizens, including the very Parisian fear that their town is either becoming a museum with no new vitality, or conversely, embracing a new architectural minimalism that ignores the history of ornate metro entrances and Haussmann’s renovations.

While Klapisch is not afraid to hit every note on the emotional scale, the film gravitates toward the themes of failed dreams and broken romances, all of which hinge on the dancer’s lament that in Paris, “no one is ever happy.” If they are unhappy, then like the city, it’s a romanticized unhappiness; a dissatisfaction that Parisians, like New Yorkers, often wear with pride. It is also a bit ridiculous.

Denis’ 35 Shots has something to say about unhappiness as well, but the source is more sincere, if not readily identifiable. Her film’s emotional peaks are felt rather than understood, and this creates a series of rare cinematic moments which are more akin to music, or a painting; the feeling generated by them is less of a manipulation by the artist than a personal reaction by the viewer.

Takeing the metro in the opposite direction from Klapisch’s lens, her film follows a father and daughter living in an African-French neighborhood in the ‘burbs. Their apartment complex is modest; its interiors simple, organized, and in many ways more typically Parisian than those with a view of the Eifel Tower. In what is now her trademark, Denis gives generous screen time to these interiors and the nuances of the lives within them, making the building a character in the film as well as a metaphor for its residents. Bathing, cooking, smoking, all become clues about who these people are and why we should care, even if they seem like simple acts at first. We can only guess why, for example, a rice cooker is so significant, or what, as the title announces, drinking a certain amount of rum is reminiscent of. But we know they’re important.

And unlike other potentially too-obtuse Denis projects, like her frustratingly poetic The Intruder, we are not left in the wilds of her subconscious. The mysteries here aren’t solved on screen, but they certainly feel like they could be if she cared to. Thankfully she doesn’t. Instead we feel the hidden connections between ex-lovers, friends, and co-workers. The ghosts of characters and events who aren’t given names or appear in silly flashbacks, are equally as present as those we are watching on the screen. And to give them names, or images, would rob them of their power, because the gap between our imagination and their sublime mystery would be filled.

Fellow Parisian, Roland Barthes, once referred to a similar gap when he said, “…to try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.” The same can be said for trying to film love, or Paris for that matter. And so Denis has found new way to share cinematic lives, and her city, without all the muck. Klapisch has given us a plane ticket for two hours, but it’s back to same old (cozy) café.

View the trailers for both below.