35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums) Review
Claire Denis has never denied the influence of Yasujiro Ozu on her work, but up to now at least there have been few overt references to the Japanese master in her films. Rather, with increasing distance from narrative, trusting in the evocation of mood through music, movement and little moments, Denis has sought an alternative way of exploring what it means to be human. Whether it is passion expressed as bloodlust in Trouble Every Day, memory, desire and culture clash in Chocolat or I Can’t Sleep, or events that directly challenge one’s sense of identity and personality through the body shock of organ transplant in The Intruder or through submission of one’s individuality to the military in Beau Travail, Denis has always sought an alternative and very individual way of exploring what it means to be human.
It was in her 2002 film Friday Night (Vendredi Soir) however that Denis slipped most obviously into pure expression, capturing the rush of emotions that are experienced in a chance encounter and one-night-stand, finding it not in any conventional narrative or character development arc, but in small details at the edge of the frame, in the most fleeting of expressions and with the minimum of words. 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums) falls very much into this mode of expression, a delicate, flowing ride through the simple moments of life, finding significance in the daily patterns that we live by, enhancing those moments through the use of colour, light, music and movement. In terms of narrative or character however, almost everything is up for grabs, relying heavily on the viewer to fill in the gaps, work out what stage each of the characters is at in their lives, what has taken them there and where they are likely to go.
What is surprising however is just how close Denis comes this time to evoking the spirit of Ozu in 35 rhums’s framework of family relationships. Essentially, the film is about a father and daughter living together in close company who are unable to move on in their lives. She, Joséphine (Mati Diop), should be married, perhaps to the boy upstairs, Noé (Grégoire Colin), although she also receives attention from a boy at the university, but her father is too involved in the everyday matters of her life for her to act in any way that doesn’t also take him into consideration. There is also uncertainty over her parentage and the fate of her mother, which is a further unresolved matter that makes the ties even harder to break. As for her father Lionel (Alex Descas), he’s a Paris suburban RER train driver (trains being another familiar Ozu motif). There’s a woman upstairs, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a taxi driver, whose relationship with the family is also uncertain – is she just a neighbour or something more? Such is the closed nature of the relationship and Lionel however that it’s hard to see where anyone else fits in. With the most simple of cinematographic moments and use of repetition Denis captures the comfortable equilibrium if their existence together in a pair of slippers waiting in the hall, in a bathrobe that Lionel slips quietly into and in the steam rising off the rice (Green Tea over Rice?) that Jo has prepared in the new rice cooker that Lionel has bought.
Denis weaves this web of uncertainty, the characters moving into and out of each others orbits up to a key scene in the middle of the film when, on the way to a concert, they are thrown together in a manner that brings out the latent tensions and connections between them. Words are exchanged, glances are crossed, gentle touches make fleeting contact, establishing the lines and the limitations between them. With Tindersticks providing their now customary Denis film score, their rhythms matching the pace of a train and the living pulse of the city, and with such an ability to create mood, who needs the arthouse staple of an Avro Pärt piece to lend the film dignity, grace and a spiritual dimension? Such is the power of the expression that Claire Denis and her regular DoP Agnès Godard command that even an old Commodores song (‘Nightshift’) is capable of expressing remarkable depths in the nature and make-up of the characters.
If the spirit of Ozu is present in this set-up, it’s even more evident in further background details, in the retirement of one of Lionel’s co-workers, in the heavy drinking that the men indulge in – the drinking of the 35 shots of rum a feature that is to mark a significant moment in the film. But these are only a point of departure and reference for Denis, and perhaps surprisingly they are actually heavily autobiographical – her mother was brought up alone by her widowed Brazilian grandfather, a fact that perhaps explains more why the nature of Ozu films and their ability to capture the unspoken bonds that exist in families means so much to Denis.
It’s in the departure then from those Ozu moments, in those little side details and the director’s personal investment, that Denis firmly places her own stamp and sensibility onto 35 rhums. To just name one example, other than the fact that it is rare to see in a French film that isn’t specifically about race, is it significant that almost the entire cast of the film are black? It isn’t necessarily relevant (although one classroom scene does seem to draw unnecessary attention to the fact when it isn’t made an issue elsewhere), but it almost certainly is an important factor that defines who the characters are, particularly when the spell and mood is broken, again not in any conventional manner, but in an unexpected diversion to Germany. Even there, little of significance happens on the surface, and even less is explained, but everything Denis wants to express about the characters, about people, about families and about how we live our lives is there if you adjust your perception of where to look for it and not expect definitive answers - and where the inner lives of people are concerned and the relationships that exist between them, there shouldn’t really be any.