Narratively slim, 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, in French) is an unflinching relationship drama from one of France’s finest filmmakers Claire Denis. Like all good termite art, its smallness and relatively innocuous appearance conceals a complex, harrowing story which burrows deep into your psyche long after its final shot.
Growing up in French Colonial Africa, the auteur Claire Denis has never shied away from themes of identity, conflict and race. With 35 Shots of Rum, she tackles it directly with the setting of a predominately black community of outer Paris. We first meet Lionel (played with a quiet yet gentle intensity by Alex Descas) a train conductor who is at risk of being edged out of the locomotive business by old age and modernity. He goes home to his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), a university student who spends time working in a record store and venturing on a somewhat bizarre who has a somewhat undefined relationship with the wanderlust dreamer living upstairs Noé (Grégoire Colin). The last of our locked-in protagonists is Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a cab driver and ex-lover of Lionel’s who tries to regain his interest by unconditionally mothering Joséphine. All four characters are wrestling with transition and arrested development, and their relationships with each other.
What is so refreshing in 35 Shots of Rum is that Denis never feels the need to drive home her stories’ motives, exploring human interactions with an uncommon clarity of vision. It all unfurls so plainly with observational scenes made up largely of the silent and wordless interactions of everyday life, a portrait of actuality shot elegantly by Denis’ longtime cinematographer Agnès Godard.
A series of happenings then, it can seem a little languid in places, but the most heartrending moment is also it’s most orchestrated. In an unlikely occurrence that sees all four of them heading to a concert in town, the car breaks down and they are left stranded in a Caribbean diner after hours. Not letting their rain soaked clothes put a dampener on the evening’s festivities, the soulful grooves of The Commodores booms out of the cafe speakers and Noé dances seductively with a less than willing Joséphine. Registering the discomfort on her face, Denis’ lens never averts from the situation, it’s such close character proximity that we only witness previously when her father embraces her in a tender paternal moment. Looking on from the sidelines, a wounded Lionel later dances in the self same way with the diner’s proprietor. We’re not quite sure whether he is doing this out of raw sexual passion, malice or a melange of both, but his intentions are just as distressing for the now motionless Gabrielle watching on; disapproving, embarrassed and jealous of the woman in Lionel’s arms.
As a collaborative artist, Denis becomes the facilitator for a truly compositional movie. Over 1oo minutes, she manages to present four brutally true acting performances, some fantastically unique, body-gazing cinematography and an emotively rich score from Tindersticks’ main-man Stuart Staples.
I’ll avoid the alcoholic/shot/binge drinking quips that are filtering through my head, 35 Shots of Rum deserves better than that. It’s an affecting, unsettling and accomplished movie, sending Denis right to the top of her métier.