March 17, 2009
35 Shots of Rum begins inside of a commuter train, the industrial landscape zooming past the conductor’s front window. Then there is a cut to an off-duty transit worker, Lionel (Alex Descas), smoking a cigarette by the tracks. Director Claire Denis repeats this contrast throughout the opening sequence, back and forth between the gleaming locomotive and Descas’ impassive face. Soon his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) enters the montage, an exhausted rush-hour passenger on the way home. This simple, wordless sequence sets up the central dynamic of the film: Josephine’s drift into adulthood delayed by the centripetal force of family comforts, located in the reassuring solidity of her father and their apartment.
Screened as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vouz with French Cinema, it is another beautifully textured work from Denis, her first fiction feature since L’intrus (2004). 35 Shots of Rum is a return to a more linear form of storytelling after L’intrus‘ narrative refusal, which used an associative whirl of images inspired by continental philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (you can read my former academic self’s thoughts on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema). Denis turned to the family drama because of Yasujiro Ozu and her mother. As she told Robert Davis of Daily Plastic:
it’s the story of my grandfather and my mother. She was raised by her father. And once I took her to see a retrospective of Ozu, and she really had a sort of shock to see that film [Late Spring]. That was maybe ten, fifteen years ago. I told her, “Maybe, once, I will try to make a film like that for you.”
This film is a promise fulfilled, a worthy successor to Ozu’s placid genius and a delicately embossed love letter from daughter to mother.
Lionel is a widow, and Josephine is his only child. Their bond has been cemented through their everyday rituals, lovingly detailed by Denis’ long time cinematographer Agnes Godard. Every night Lionel comes home, changes into his robe, and showers before sleep. Descas is filmed in long shot, with a tentative push-in down the hallway as he turns into the bathroom. Diop is shown in close-up, a cascade of smiles lighting up her face – one for every familiar noise Lionel makes. This noise-as-bond contrasts to an earlier sequence, when their life-long neighbor Noé (Denis axiom Grégoire Colin), comes home and lingers in an upstairs hallway, listening to the music emanating from his beloved Josephine’s stereo. Again Godard uses a small push-in, to an empty hall this time, followed by a close-up of Colin’s face, his loneliness evident on his cadaverous features. This same combination of shots indicates separation, a lucid interplay between shot and counter-shot, long-shot and close-up, that is representative of the precise emotions wrought by Godard’s camera throughout the film.
This lucidity is shown-off to marvelous effect in the film’s major set-piece, set at a cafe nearing closing time. The whole makeshift family (Lionel, Josephine, Noé, and Lionel’s ex-flame Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue)) head out to a concert only to have their car break down in a storm. They wait out the weather in the cafe, and all of the characters’ emotions come to the fore, expressed with a minimum of dialogue. Just like the father in Late Spring, Lionel is adamant that Josephine stop caring for him, fearful that he is robbing her of her youth. So with the Commodores’ “Nightshift” on the jukebox, Noé cuts in on the father as he dances with Josephine. Relegated to the bar, a remarkable series of edits and performances occur. In medium-shot Colin and Diop move closer, his dextrous fingers letting down her hair, pulling himself into her. This is intercut with a series of close-ups of Descas, witnessing the flirtation. His performance is extraodinary for its surface calm as his daughter is seduced by Noé, his will for her freedom resolute. His only concession is a brief glance downward as Noé moves in for the kiss, before Josephine pushes him away, still unsure of her love. This exchange is the emotional nexus, but the cross-currents effect Gabrielle, as Lionel pulls the restaurant owner aside for some physical escape of his own, eliciting a secondary shot-countershot series. The intensity of emotion here is breathtaking, hearkening back to the power of silent cinema as well as the minimalist aesthetic of Ozu.
The film ends in a bittersweet glow, not unlike the haze produced by knocking back a few Cuervos. With elliptical grace, Denis implies a wedding, and an escape, through a gorgeous insert of a necklace spinning ’round Josephine’s neck and Noé cracking a smile. Again it is a close-up shot/longer counter-shot pattern, but instead of emphasizing their physicality (creating noise, slow dancing), it aims to capture the ineffable contours of love and memory: the close-up necklace connoting the absent mother, Lionel as patient fatherly hands clasping it on, and Noé out in the hallway in medium-shot, out of sight of the bride but reacting with a beatific grin, as if his adoration let him see through walls.