Claire Denis and 35 Rhums: On the Tracks, In a House Full of Love


The following interview with Claire Denis was conducted at BAFICI in April. A festival report by the author, as well as comments on the Denis film, can be found at the link provided below.

Gratitude goes to the Northwest Film Forum, presently screening 35 Rhums.

Claire Denis and 35 Rhums: On the Tracks, In a House Full of Love

A recollection from Beau Travail: the soon-to-be-disgraced Legionnaire intones that “something vague and menacing came over me”, describing a fit of jealous rage toward a younger charge. Could this feeling not describe the tone of all of your films? Is it another name for sexuality in general?

In a way it could be true of my films. We build our lives on hope and fear; we are hoping for things to happen and fearing them too. These intrusions of hope and fear are menacing in a way, but vague too because we don’t know the future. It’s about feelings of mortality and the instability of our emotions: we always expect something from the future, but in the end what is certain is that we are dying. We always expect a better life, even when things are at their worst. And this longing for sex, well, it is certainly true..

35 Rhums has been described by you and others as an homage to Ozu. It’s certainly more delicate and tender than your previous film L’Intrus, for instance, yet much more erotic than Ozu, and more portentous.

Actually the film is inspired by the story of my own mother and grandfather. But when I saw Late Spring (Ozu Yasujiro), I realized it would be great to do my own version of it.

There are small signs of danger in the film, which could relate to the sense of mortality you speak of. When she is cleaning her balcony window, for example, there’s a sense of trepidation…

The father, he’s been looking after her since she was a baby. He has to let go of that protective nature, but he’s still afraid.

And then, as they are traveling to Germany by car, the highway seems fraught, there’s an image of a blue truck. There’s a feeling of…

Danger. In the script we had written a scene of them preparing to go. In another version, we removed it. I like the idea of them arriving at dawn, they have been driving all night, and I wanted to convey this not with a particular shot but through a feeling of ellipse. When you drive all night and suddenly in the morning you’re in another country.

So it’s more of a sensation than information?


During a post-screening Q&A with Kent Jones, you spoke of how a fictional character becomes part of your life, how a film too becomes part of your life. How do you find that these insinuate themselves? Is it through the script, in characterization, or in something more ambient? I’m thinking of the café scene at closing time, they’ve missed the concert, it’s raining, suddenly the Commodores are playing and it’s as if you could really luxuriate inside that scene, that moment.

I enjoyed writing that so much. The concert, this bar, these sorts of things. Those who are in love they want to go out and be and feel together – that moment of sharing something. Of course for Lionel that’s why it’s a bit boring to go there, he would prefer to stay home. But suddenly the fact that they are missing the concert, it’s the moment where Lionel uses the occasion for something else. Noe can move forward a little bit. It’s as if Lionel was at that moment deciding: Let’s do something for the benefit of others. Of course he finds the woman in the café beautiful, and he wants to have sex with her (laughs). But he doesn’t want to ask that everyone stick together for the sake of it, an artificial togetherness.

That comes from what exactly?

He wants his daughter to realize…that they are both adults, he can do what he wants, so that she can do what she wants. The time has passed for her to go back home with him. On the other hand, he’s completely contradictory because any time she’s working late he hates that. But he regrets that too.

It’s ambiguous, their relationship. It’s not clear at first that they are father and daughter.

It’s intentional in the script. We thought, it’s easy for a good-looking man to have a younger woman. And in the film they essentially live like a couple, although he respects her privacy very much. He would never walk around naked in that apartment! That long corridor is very necessary, a means of separating their private lives.

One can get used to shocks of sex and violence – not only in your work but in cinema in general – so it comes as a surprise that this is in essence a very universal story, about familial intimacy. There’s a reversal of expectation. But then, your films have always been about family in some way.

It’s the film I wanted to make! Yes, some of my films have been violent, but I would never show a father/daughter relationship that is sordid, you know? I’m not into that.

There’s such a stark contrast in your work, often within the film, of cruelty and tenderness. I’m thinking of the dead cat in the garbage bag. A certain sadness to the practical?

It’s something that I experienced. I knew a woman and she had a very strong relationship with her cat – it was 18 years old, very old for a cat. We were having dinner, and as the cat was going to the sink for a drink of water, it simply fell dead. I hoped she didn’t see it, but she did, and she took a shoebox and put the cat in it, and she came back to eat dinner. I said “You have no heart, it is your cat who just died.” And she said “He was the center of my life when he was alive, but now he is dead, and I must finish my dinner.” I like that very much, it makes sense.

For Noe, it means the time has come to know: does she want me or not? The cat is dead, the calendar is turning. Time, it passes. Grab me now, he is thinking.

Noe, we don’t know much about him, he’s obscure.

We know enough. His parents are dead. He kept the apartment with the old cat. He’s working – we knew what kind of job but we decided to keep that out. He’s in love, that’s all.

But we are sympathetic toward him, even though he’s an enigma. The initial looks he gives Lionel can be seen as less than friendly.

No. He simply wants his daughter. Maybe because Gregoire Colin is such a complex guy he brings a look of the unknown, a naivete. But that’s the kind of actor I like.

At one point Lionel says: “We have everything we need here.” I read this as a comment on extended family, on émigré community.

It’s about love. He is mentioning to Noe: There is my daughter, and there is no other place to look for love. Is there a more beautiful woman? No.

And what about Lionel’s relationship to Rene? Rene is suffering, unhappy.

All the characters are attracted to Lionel and his daughter because their house is full of love. They want to be part of this. When you are lonely and you go to a friend’s place and drink some wine, it feels warm to you. I think Lionel knows that whatever happens he has preserved a precious thing, which is the quality of love for his daughter. In the end it is no good for him because it hurts, but still…

He drives the train. Maybe it is lonely but he looks and listens. Like watching a film…

It’s a beautiful job I guess. And trains are beautiful. It is work where companionship is very important.

The comraderie born of loneliness.

Yes, it’s always about the comraderie.

Speaking with you I realize that the film is principally about their relationship, a father and daughter, more so than as I was watching it.

Actually the film is inspired by the story of my own mother and grandfather. But when I saw Late Spring (Ozu Yasujiro), I realized it would be great to do my own version of it.


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