35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhum)

July 28, 2010

The notion of a ‘minor work’ is misleading.  For what is ‘minor’?  Claire Denis’ latest film, White Material, deals head-on with a white woman struggling through an unnamed African country’s revolution and civil war.  There is death, violence, and a family devastated by sweeping political change they can’t begin to understand.  In contrast, her previous film, 35 Shots of Rum, is about an ad-hoc family unit consisting of four individuals dealing with their relationship to each other.  White Material is an excellent film, to be sure, but it never reaches the level of emotional bliss and devastation that 35 Shots of Rum achieves.  The fact is, a great director can mould the smallest story into something massive in impact and beauty.  So pardon me whilst I gush about this work.  It was my favourite film of 2009, and considering it was originally released in 2008, I can say it was my favourite film of that year as well.   Oh, and spoilers abound, so if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do.

The film opens with a series of shots from the front of a Paris Metro train.  Lionel (Denis veteran Alex Descas) is the driver, and central to the story is the theme of movement and transport, traveling from one destination to another.  Josephine (Mati Diop) buys a rice cooker, comes home, puts her clothes in the washer and starts on dinner.  Lionel, her father, comes home soon after having also bought a rice cooker.  They’re affectionate and loving, and she makes no mention of her own purchase whilst exclaiming ‘you remembered!’  We spend a good deal of time with their daily rituals.  He takes off his boots, she brings him his slippers, he takes of his shirt and changes into a bathrobe, he showers, dresses, puts his own clothing into the washer, turns it on, and she serves dinner.  Denis dwells on these details, but not, which is so often in films, to establish the mundanity of everyday life which the narrative with explode and resolve, but rather to revel in the joy of the comforting ritual.  This father and daughter have an intimacy that seems to border on the erotic (indeed, preconceived notions of films like these had me squirming in dread as to where I thought it might reveal the first time I saw it), but in actuality is just an extraordinarily close bond.

Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) is a taxi driver.  She complains to a fare that nobody wants a ride to the airport, just short, local trips.  He responds that all taxi drivers complain and if they’re so dissatisfied, they should go into another line of work. She retorts that actually she loves her job and the independence and control it provides her.  Gabrielle is also Lionel’s longtime neighbour, having helped raise Josephine since she was a young child.  She’s also in love with Lionel, yearning for both him and a greater role in her surrogate family.  Noé (Grégorie Colin, another Denis veteran) lives upstairs in his deceased parents’ flat, taking care of their aging cat but traveling all the time on business.  He’s fallen in love with Josephine, but can’t bring himself to do anything about it.  This ad-hoc family is the core of the film, and the entire running time will be devoted to exploring the varied relationships they have with one another, how they’re threatened, and finally how they evolve.

I cannot mince words:  not a lot happens on the surface of 35 Shots of Rum.  Denis is a sensualist, some might say an extreme minimalist, and in this instance, she is downright obsessed with the minutiae of existence for these four.  There’s a slow establishing of life and how they live it.  Lionel’s co-worker, René (Julieth Mars Toussaint) retires and has a party.  He’s given gifts from his co-workers (two traditional pieces of art and clothing and an iPod mini, perhaps reminding him of a past he no longer has a connection to and a future he’s not a part of).  The titular shots of alcohol are referenced, but not expounded upon.  Lionel will save them for a time when they really matter.  René is alone in life.  Lionel is the closest thing he has to a friend, but he has no family, and thus, no present and certainly no future.  He never moves on with his life, but instead frequents the same café and rides the trains he used to drive.  He complains that he is as healthy as an ox, and will likely live to the age of 100, a thought that depresses him so much that it is not a shock when Lionel stops the train one day to find his old friend decapitated on the railway having committed suicide.  The message here, at least for Lionel, isn’t subtle:  if you have no family, then you might as well be dead.  When he remarks that he thinks Noé is lonely, Josephine retorts, “He has us.”

The centerpiece of the film is that scene, which is so perfect I doubt you’ll find a single review that doesn’t mention it.  The four are on their way to a concert on a rainy night when Gabrielle’s car breaks down.  They head into a café that is just closing to wait for a tow truck and a ride.  The woman who owns the café is convinced to stay open, and she goes about making food (and meals are again central to the theme) for the visitors.  It is, I think, significant that when stranded on a dark and rainy night these characters find care and decency instead of hostility.  This film isn’t really about large, significant events.  As they have some drinks at the bar, Lionel dances with Gabrielle.  He then pulls Jo onto the impromptu dance floor as the Commodores’ “Nightshift” comes on, only to be interrupted by Noé’s desire to cut in.  A sensual dance ensues, a move is made and briefly returned and then rebuffed.  Food is served and then Lionel grabs the arm of the café owner, insisting on a dance.  The scene is a perfect melding of silent character interaction and reaction and music, and serves as the point where everyone experiences the changing dynamics of the family. This is Denis at her most sensual.  Lionel realizes he will have to lose his daughter at some point, Gabrielle looks forlorn when he makes a move on the café owner, and Noé looks distraught at his rejection.  Upon returning to Noé’s flat, they find the cat is dead.  He takes this as the excuse to accept a lucrative overseas job, proclaiming he has no reason to hold onto his past life.  Gabrielle just needs asprin, having clearly endured the disappointment of never being Lionel’s choice for a long time.  What follows is almost inevitable.  Jo realizes she loves/needs Noé, and then she and Lionel go on a trip to Germany to see her mother’s family and her mother’s grave.  She marries Noé and Lionel accepts he is going to live alone with a wry smile.

35 Shots of Rum is, of course, about family.  It’s also about the ways in which people without roots and traditional family structures build them out of necessity.  Lionel is black. Josephine’s mother was German, and thus extended family are not seen very often. Gabrielle is also black and seemingly alone.  Noé is, it seems, long since orphaned.   These are immigrants and the children of immigrants forming a small community and family unit out of necessity.  They live in the suburbs of Paris, and through their jobs are instrumental in connecting those suburbs with the hustle and bustle of city living whilst simultaneously never really being involved in it.  Jo is embedded in this notion of distance from the outside world.  In her college class she can easily work in the work of Stiglitz and dispassionately discuss the way in which the North enslaves the South with debt whilst also emphasizing the need to be objective and emotionless.  The ties that bind these people strangle them at the same time.  It’s not hard to see that Gabrielle is alone because she’s never moved on from Lionel.  For his part, his experience with René reaffirms his belief in the importance of family, even while he lets his daughter go.  Noé might love Jo, but he also needs the stability of a home life in whatever capacity.  When a rival suitor enters her life, Noé is spurned to make a move, the rejection of which leads him to threaten to leave.

And this might be the key to 35 Shots of Rum.  Its beautiful but minimalist visual approach and its honest, low-key acting bring out significant ambiguities in the story.  Lionel accepts he will lose the loving home rituals he’s accustomed to, but I’m not so sure Josephine is as easily accepting of the loss of the family.  For all it seems to buttress these traditional notions, even in nontraditional circumstances, the film undercuts them with doubt.  Josephine would rather marry Noé than lose the dynamic.  It’s never clear whether they are going to actually move overseas, but since he only brought it up when upset and deciding to leave, one suspects he has the option to stay (not to mention Jo has already been established as a capable flat remodeler, which he’s noticed).  On top of that we have Gabrielle, who might accepted her suffering but still experiences it.  The closeness these four feel is both a strength and a weakness.  The happy ending has a bittersweet tinge.  The happiness of comfort might just come at the price of the open exploration of the world and all it has to offer.  A minor work indeed.


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