Claire Denis’s latest film is a warm and beautifully observed portrayal of life in a working class suburb of Paris. Centring on the deeply affectionate relationship between Lionel, a widowed train driver, and Josephine (Jo), his daughter, the plot unfolds effortlessly, yet offers rich insight into the various characters who make up their world.
Gabrielle, a neighbour and former girlfriend of Lionel’s, waits on her apartment balcony hoping to catch a glimpse of him returning home. Noé, a slightly odd and somewhat detached young guy who lives upstairs, returns home each evening to find only his cat waiting for him. The comfortable and easy-going friendship that all four share serves only to highlight the underlying loneliness of Gabrielle and Noé, in contrast to Lionel and Jo’s strong bond. But Lionel is aware that his daughter is becoming too old to maintain such a close link with him and encourages her to be more independent and “to feel free”, accepting the subsequent relationship that develops between her and Noé.
While Denis’s film is primarily a study of individual human relationships, it comments on several wider debates in French society. The relentless, exhausting nature of work is captured in the weary expressions of commuters who ride the subway system. René, one of the train drivers, looks forward to retirement to escape this grind but is desolate once it arrives, missing the camaraderie of work and unable to find his place in life.
Jo stumbles across a student blockade of her university, in protest at the closure of an anthropology department. She leads a classroom debate on the adverse effects of debt on African countries, during which one student suggests it’s a systemic problem, encouraging his classmates to read Fanon on the effects of colonisation.
But it is the depiction of everyday life in Paris’s suburbs that stands out most. Denis shows an almost exclusively black cast of ordinary people from France’s former colonies who work, live, love, debate and socialise together. This is in sharp contrast to the facile and often racist portrayal by the mainstream media and politicians of dangerous “no-go areas” inhabited largely by ethnic minorities who sporadically riot. For this and the understated yet thoughtful way in which it discusses the complexities of their lives, the film is to be welcomed.
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