35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums)



Laura Clifford 
35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums)

Robin Clifford 

A man alternately drives his train and smokes.  A woman rides that train, then stops to buy a rice cooker on the way home.  The same man arrives home to the younger woman also bearing a rice cooker, and she's touched he hasn't forgotten although clearly she expected him to.  The death of a family member has drawn this couple closer together than they ought perhaps to be in writer (with "Beau Travail" and "Trouble Every Day" cowriter Jean-Pol Fargeau)/director Claire Denis's "35 Shots of Rum."

Laura:
French auteur Claire Denis takes a patiently observational approach to her films, forcing her audience to fill in the blanks about the characters the camera lingers upon as they go about their days.  In "Beau Travail," we watched the training exercises of a group of Legionnaires whose leader becomes obsessed with one of them.  In "Vendredi Soir," we spend a night stuck in traffic in what seems like real time.  The first six minutes of "35 Rhums" is given over to that dark opening, with characters whose faces we can barely make out and it is not until Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas, "Trouble Every Day," "The Limits of Control") have finished up their rice-based dinner do we learn that they are father and daughter.

Will this be a film about various people in an apartment building?  It may seem that way at first, but the still beautiful, middle-aged Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) has a connection to the close father/daughter pair.  Then there is Noé (Grégoire Colin, "Beau Travail," "Sex Is Comedy"), the rootless young man who threatens to move away and yet seems to be doing so because of a move Joséphine refuses to make.  Lionel's best friend and coworker René (Julieth Mars Toussaint) is rootless after retirement, making Lionel's predicament - that of realizing he must let his daughter go - even tougher.  Joséphine is nudged from another direction as well when Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly), a student in one of her college classes, takes an interest.

Things come to a head in an evening out of time.  Gabrielle, who we have learned was Lionel's ex-lover and eager to resume her place, arranges a 'family' outing to a concert.  Ruben arrives with flowers to escort Joséphine, but she tells him she already has plans to go and will maybe see him there.  Noé arrives shortly thereafter, and, upon seeing the flowers wryly asks 'Am I running behind?'  The foursome never make it to the concert, as Gabrielle's taxi breaks down in the rain.  In order to salvage the evening they get a local cafe to open and, in a magically choreographed sequence, Godard and cinematographer Agnès Godard ("Beau Travail," "Vendredi Soir"), who creates a golden glow inside from the rainy evening, define each relationship in a series of dances among the small group.

Denis's film is about the bonds that keep us tied to about the bonds that keep us tied to people, places and things, like Noé's old cat whose death prompts him to declare he is leaving, or the letter to Lionel from Gabrielle Joséphine finds in a shoebox before cleaning their apartment with a vengeance.   That action leads to a trip north, where we meet Joséphine's aunt (Ingrid Caven, "Time Regained") and where she and her father camp out near her mother's grave ('I could live like this forever,' she says, side by side with dad in sleeping bags).  Lionel's old buddy cannot adjust to life without his job.  In the end, though, Joséphine moves forward in a sudden turn of events that is summed up with a shot of two very different rice cookers, sitting side by side.  And those 35 shots?  Lionel tells us early on that it's an old story and he won't drink them now (at Rene's retirement party).  The prized number raises its head at the film's closing party, and although we never do hear that story we can guess.

Denis's best film by far is "Beau Travail," and "35 Rhums" is not up to its exotic beauty and fierce Lavant performance.  Godard's camera work is often murky in a way that does not illuminate anything about the characters and there are a couple of non sequiturs that are merely perplexing (a student protest, for example).  Still the actors here quietly flesh out their characters, Lionel with few words indeed.  Original Music by Tindersticks ("Trouble Every Day") provides Lionel with flute and harmonica as he drives his train, while Joséphine, who works in a record store, is defined by rock.  Denis has a mesmerizing directorial style that keeps us watching her characters, even as they do laundry and "35 Shots of Rum" is clearly of her canon.

B+

Robin:
Robin's review coming soon.
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