35 Shots of Rum
by Richard von Busack
More a luminous artwork than a movie, Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum is a story about a cluster of people connected to the transportation industry. It’s a small world of the sidelined and the elsewhere. Here are lives half-seen by the mainstream Parisian movie (and as much as I liked Cédric Klapisch’s Paris, that film counts as one such mainstream effort).
35 Shots of Rum takes place in an unlovely Parisian suburb of high-rises, yet gifted cinematographer Agnès Godard makes even this area beautiful in a way. One lady, gazing out of her apartment at night, looks into abstract field of square windows across the street—some iodine-reddish, some radiant with blue TV light. Denis studies black faces reflected in black glass; she even puts a touch of grace into the silent changing of the shifts in a locker room.
The action focuses on a series of on-again, off-again relationships. The central one is the love between a father and a daughter who are as close and yet as isolated as Prospero and Miranda. Lionel (the startlingly handsome Alex Descas) works as a train conductor. The subtitles identify Lionel’s train system as the Metro and so have some of the critics. But the double-decker carriages appear to me to be the RER, the Paris commuter line that is equivalent to BART, running through the same edge cities and industrial zones, leading to the same cramped suburbs of bridge and tunnel people.
When not working his long hours, Lionel is doted upon by his grown daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop). She is a college student in the social sciences who works nights at a Virgin Records store. They have the kind of closeness that challenges an audience: What’s really going on with them? Is it devotion or something unnatural?
Josephine and Lionel, like almost all of the other characters in 35 Shots of Rum, have strong Afro/Caribbean roots, even though they’re also sturdily French. White viewers can even feel a little ashamed of themselves for suspecting incest. What do we know about the way other cultures allow a father to hold his daughter in his arms?
And the slippery Denis gives us no solid evidence of anything shameful. There are embraces that might (or might not) go further, but she cuts away. There are significant lines of dialogue: “We do what we want to,” says Josephine to her father. This could just mean that they don’t have to face the outside world if they don’t feel like it. Or?
The reverse angle on the story doesn’t solve the mystery. Watching Lionel and Josephine closely is Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a spiky, lonely female taxi driver who lives in their building. Once upon a time, Gabrielle carried on some kind of affair with the train conductor; it’s over, and yet she can’t declare it over. She still looks out her window half the night, hoping for Lionel to turn up.
35 Shots of Rum is Gabrielle’s story, too. We see her exchanging some saltiness on the job with a customer. Gabrielle grouses about not being able to find any airport fares, so a passenger gives her what he considers good advice: “If you’re not happy, change jobs. It’s called ‘flexibility.’”
Josephine shows a kind of interest in another person in the building: Noé (Grégoire Colin), a diffident young man with one foot out the door. Josephine finds him appealing, and he’s high-spirited enough to jump into a canal when the two of them are out jogging in the neighborhood. But he’s not putting much push into the courtship. Noé is what some people call carefree; he’s actually really careless.
Denis also includes a political angle in this profoundly psychological film. Josephine’s class takes up the matter of the international debt that keeps Africa in chains—and implicitly what keeps émigrés coming to Paris to land dead-end jobs.
And the dead-end relationships, too, are finally catalyzed during a late-night party at a cafe. The party happens by accident, while the father and the daughter, and their two sort-of lovers, are heading out for a concert. The four are thrown off-track by a car breakdown and a cloudburst. The happenstance seems to be what Gabrielle has been praying for: “We’re a family again,” she says.
Here 35 Shots of Rum slips free of language and continues its storytelling through a succession of dances, with Gabrielle getting a chance at last to hold Lionel for a minute on the dance floor before he turns his attentions elsewhere.
As a study of a solitary workingman, 35 Shots of Rum contains passages that are worthy of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The way Lionel unpacks himself after a workday, shedding his jacket and taking off his boots, is fraught with eloquence.
But the ménages here are far more tense and braided than in Burnett’s masterpiece; and the flute and electronic keyboard score by the band Tindersticks gilds this restrained exercise in sorrow and tendresse. Mysteriously, trains frame the shots; again we join Lionel on his wordless, subterranean voyages; 35 Shots of Rum does for trains what Jean Vigo’s L’atalante did for barges.