Director: Claire Denis
Starring: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Gregoire Colin, Nicole Dogue
A great filmmaker can do a lot with a little, can take the everyday ebb and flow of life and use it to create a story that is wholly compelling without any sort of narrative contrivance. Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum is about nothing more than the natural transition that occurs when children grow up and reach the point where they have to leave home. It’s about how the natural order of things reshapes itself out of the necessity of time passing, an intimate character study that resonates precisely because “nothing” happens save for the way the characters come together and then come apart. It is a slow and meditative film, but also undoubtedly a great one.
35 Shots of Rum centers on Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop). Lionel is a driver on a commuter rail line and Josephine is a student studying anthropology, and since the death of Josephine’s mother it’s been just the two of them and they’ve developed a comfortable daily routine together built on their devotion to each other. Over the years they’ve developed a loose sort of family relationship with two other tenants in their apartment building, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a cab driver who has long been in love with Lionel and seen herself as a mother to Josephine, and Noe (Gregoire Colin), a somewhat scattered young man who is often abroad and doesn’t really seem to know what he wants or where he’s going in life. What he does know is that he has feelings for Josephine, though he has trouble coming out and saying so.
Despite these close ties, the relationship between Lionel and Josephine operates with a kind of exclusivity to anyone else due to their shared grief over the loss of Josephine’s mother; they’re living in a kind of stasis, as if afraid to move and change. When a colleague of Lionel’s retires and falls into a deep depression, Lionel begins to realize that he can’t cling to how things are in the present, because change is inevitable as Josephine begins to make her way in the world. Meanwhile, as Josephine’s awareness of her feelings for Noe (and vice versa) grow she comes to realize that life is soon going to move her away from Lionel, as it must. Change is in the air, no matter how hard they may want to fight against it and maintain the status quo.
35 Shots of Rum is the kind of film that won’t be rushed, that moves at the natural rhythm of life. It might seem inert were it not for the fact that the characters are so vital, their quiet longings – Gabrielle for Lionel, Josephine and Noe for each other, Lionel for an aspect of his life that he’s left many years on the backburner – so palpable and compelling. All four of the principal actors are great, turning in performances of depth and subtlety, a necessity given that the characters tend to say the most at the moments when they’re saying nothing at all. The turning point in the film is when the four encounter car trouble while on their way to a concert and take refuge from a rainy night in a cafe. Though few words are exchanged, a lot comes out into the open: Noe and Josephine realize their feelings for each other; Lionel realizes what’s happening between them, and also realizes that Josephine’s loyalty to him is holding her back from living her own life; Gabrielle realizes, through the way that Lionel looks at the cafe owner, that he’ll never think of her the way that she thinks of him. It’s a masterful sequence that demonstrates what can be accomplished when a filmmaker simply stands back and lets their characters blossom, rather than forcing them down a more plot-driven narrative path.
35 Shots of Rum is likely an acquired taste kind of film – some viewers will respond to the slow pace and careful characterization, but other viewers will be frustrated by its refusal to indulge in “big moments” that in more conventional stories provide the justification for the telling. If you have the patience for it, it’s a terrifically rich and rewarding film, the kind that resonates long after it’s over.