Friday, November 6, 2009

World in Your Eyes

35 SHOTS OF RUM / 35 Rhums
(Claire Denis, France, 2008, 35mm, 107 mins.)

"I have the feeling I'm going to work often with you, because there is something in you that is so calm, that gives me, helps me to create a character with you. You're a mysterious guy."
-- Claire Denis upon meeting Alex Descas

***** ***** *****

Taxis and trains hurtle though the night, lights flash and fade, reflections appear and disap-
pear. In the play of burnt orange and acid green against black, cinematographer Agnès Godard channels Edward Hopper...but with movement and music by the Tindersticks. Gradually, two faces come into focus: a train conductor (Alex Descas) and a college student (Mati Diop).

Thus Claire Denis sets the scene for 35 Shots of Rum, her ninth feature. Never one to tell
when she can show, it transpires that the two are father and daughter. Their harmonious
home life indicates that they've been living without a mother figure for some time now.

Gradually, Denis intro-
duces their extended clan: Gabrielle, a chain-smoking cabbie (Nicole Dogué), and Noé (Grég-
oire Colin), a cat-loving computer technician.
The former has eyes for Lionel, the latter for Jo. Father and daughter prefer single life. "We have everything here," Lionel says. "Why go looking elsewhere?"

Meanwhile, René, one of Lionel's fellow conductors has just been made redundant. Denis
hints that the same thing could happen to him: best he enjoy the life he has while he can.

Later, when Gabrielle's car breaks down as the four are en route to a concert, Lionel's cool-
ness becomes clearer: he sees her more as a friend or a relative than a romantic interest, but Josephine may be more frightened of her feelings for Noé than uninterested or unattracted.

A series of losses, both big and small, force father and daughter to reassess their cozy, if unchallenging domestic arrangement (I have to admit I saw one of these losses coming from
a mile away, and still haven't decided whether it's one of the script's weaknesses or not).

35 Shots isn't one of Denis's mind-fuck movies like The Intruder, but something more intimate, like Nénette et Boni or Friday Night (all of which feature Colin, a Modigliani painting come to life). It's that rare Parisian entry that focuses neither on the moneyed intellectuals, not the banlieu dwellers, but on regular working class folk. It is, in fact, the closest she's yet come to social realism, though Godard's impressionistic camera work prevents it from crossing that line.

Further, Denis populates the picture with characters of color, and never presents the situation as an issue, just a fact of life. Of French and Brazilian descent, the director grew up in West Africa, an influence that has seeped into many of her films (Chocolat, No Fear, No Die, I Can't Sleep).

Lionel is black, Josephine is biracial, and the worlds they occupy, the conductor community and the anthropology department, are mixed, if not mostly black (as is their neighborhood, which is located somewhere just outside Paris). Inspired by Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring, Denis's main concern is the relationship between father and daughter. Most movies that depict such close-
ness end in tragedy; father dies, daughter dies, or some evil interloper comes between them.

Denis evinces little interest in that kind of scenario. Lionel and Josephine love one another, but can't lean on each other forever. As some point, at least one of the pair needs to move on, to create a new community for him or herself. The result marks one of Denis's smaller films--and one of the always-subtle Descas's best performances. He spends more time looking and think-
ing than acting or talking, but sometimes that's more than enough: his eyes speak volumes.

35 Shots of Rum plays the Northwest Film Forum 11/6-12. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Avenue between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here. Image from Daily Plastic.