35 Shots of Rum

The films of French director Claire Denis are maddeningly reticent and ephemeral things, wisps of character and story that, depending on ones disposition, will either linger long or disperse at the slightest breeze. Her latest, 35 Shots of Rum is a bittersweet story of a phase in family life told with the director’s signature languor.

The first time we meet Josephine (Mati Diop), she is buying a rice cooker, an everyday item that becomes a symbol of the young woman’s growing independence. A student and part-time worker, Josephine lives with her train-driver father Lionel (Alex Decas) in an apartment in a modernist block on an anonymous street in the outer ring of Parisian suburbs. Their life together has settled into a comfortable household routine which often sees them sitting together at the table and eating steaming plates of rice, topped with scarlet harissa.

Their chain-smoking taxi-driving neighbour Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) holds a lingering flame for the leonine Lionel, waiting for him on the stairs and writing poetic love notes. Upstairs, the suave, jet-set Noe (Grégoire Colin) is cautiously circling the feline Josephine, batting away rivals for her affections and catching her eye with meaningful glances.

Halfway through, the story that Denis is forming appears to be about this foursome pairing off in their own romantic directions, but the director aspires to more subtle methods than that. Gentle ripples begin to appear that reveal a smaller, more intimate story that the director wants to show us, not tell us. A night out that doesn’t go as planned leaves all four stranded in a cafe where they drink, flirt and dance to The Commodores’ Night Shift. Later, father and daughter take a road trip to Germany; a journey that explains how father and daughter came to be living together alone just as Josephine will soon leave home.

The trouble is that by the time these critical moments come about, they might pass unnoticed among the rest of the perfectly photographed, comfortably meandering incidents and trajectories. Does it mean anything that Lionel’s colleague has recently retired? What, if anything, are we supposed to glean from the lecture about the Breton Woods System that Josephine delivers to her classmates?

Suitably for a film that opens with a ten minute montage of trains, 35 Shots of Rum is more about the journey than the destination. Denis is reluctant to signpost anything, preferring to gently nudge her characters into place and have the viewer decide what is important. Her way of telling a story places manners and behaviour over action or plot, working a delicate web of gestures and actions that threatens, at times, to not form into a film at all. This kind of construction requires a talented cast to make it work, and Denis ambitions are well realised by fine performances from the ensemble, in particular her regular male lead Descas, who brings power and dignity to what is a slightly-written character.

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