I began the festival proper with a screening of Claire Denis' new film, 35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums). This wasn't by design, but if I could choose a way to kick off a festival, this would be it. Now if there were a way to end the festival the same way -- short of skipping three dozen movies -- my trip would be complete.
Like all of her films, this one confounds me in a good way. I have to learn how to watch each one, which is why a second viewing is so important. The music, much of it by the Tindersticks, is a hypnotic force, both in the theater and in the lives of the characters, and Denis continues her knack for finding gems at a rummage sale of discarded pop LPs. As ever in her films, dances say more than words.
But what put a surprised smile on my face was discovering that 35 Rhums is a strong homage, almost even a remake, of one of my favorite films of all time. There's an allusion to that director's movies fairly early in the film, highlighted (and, in some ways, counterposed) by a tracking shot in a doorway, but that just lays the groundwork for the plot that follows. (The list of favorite films, by the way, is due for an update, and Denis's Beau Travail will surely go onto the list, not because I hadn't seen it in 2004, but because her films grow and grow. That's how they do.)
I've avoided naming the film or films that 35 Rhums reminds me of because it was such a fun discovery, and the movie is so new that I don't want to dull that sensation for other people at the festival. But I'm talking with Denis at noon today, and I don't see any way to avoid discussing it; 35 Rhums is an inspired, almost dialogue-free adaptation of this old fave in the way that Beau Travail is an adaptation of Billy Budd.
During the film, I also flashed back to Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye, South, Goodbye (which, by the way, was screened in San Francisco a few years ago by the recently departed Manny Farber, the only time I ever saw him in person). Hou's film features a number of scenes shot from moving trains, often looking out at the tracks as if the characters are static but the world is spinning beneath them.
Denis does the same -- her lead character pilots a commuter train -- but in most movies, the shots of trains have a grace and elegance lent by the fixed path. You know where a train's going. It's going off into the distance where those tracks lead, and you know it won't hit any bumps or pop any wheelies on the way.
Not so, in 35 Rhums. Denis repeatedly shoots at busy junctures, the point where many transit lines cross, so each of the five or six tracks laid out before us presents a possibility. Will the train jerk left to follow that bend or will it head straight? Enhancing that uncertainty, Agnes Godard has shot these scenes with a handheld camera instead of fixing the machine to a railing like you might expect. These scenes -- elongated and repeated -- feel almost like we're running dangerously along the tracks or galloping on a horse that could stumble on the rails, a feeling that Denis builds on later with a daydream.
Even the clack-clack of the train sounds at times like clop-clop.