The Rumpus Review of 35 Shots of Rum


Possibly the most humanistic character study from director Claire Denis: thoughtful, endearing, and rendered with exemplary tact.There is no absolute way to observe a Claire Denis film. In form and theme, her work possesses an openness uncommon in even the hallowed realm of “art” cinema. With 35 Shots of Rum — Denis’ most straightforward and narratively lucid film since Nenette et Boni — this openness is used to render the complexities of family.

Lionel and Josephine are a French-African father and daughter living together in a working class suburb of Paris. When we first view them, it is through the coy gaze of cinematographer Agnes Godard’s 50mm lens. Lionel (a handsome and greying Alex Descas), having just arrived home from work, steps into the foyer and calls to Josephine (Mati Diop as a beautiful grad student of mixed race). Preparing dinner in the kitchen, Josephine rounds the corner, buries her face in Lionel’s chest, kisses him twice and rests her head on his shoulder. As he sits to remove his shoes, she retrieves his slippers and stands against the facing wall, palms down, curls her mouth slightly and waits. They are beautiful together, a perfect couple and then, just as the two sit down to dinner and the thought solidifies, Josephine speaks: “merci, Papa.”

And it’s here that Denis’ intentions begin to focus. The film, though simple as a  narrative, is a study of two people alone comprising an entire family, performing all possible roles with their accompanying dynamics. It’s unknown how long Lionel and Josephine have lived this way, but from the confident manner in which they navigate these roles, the only plausible conclusion is, quite some time — likely, the entirety of Josephine’s life. It’s in this way that, Ms. Denis has reasoned, over time, these people have learned to be both father and daughter, brother and sister, and, as undeniably stated in the opening sequence as thesis, husband and wife.

The ambiguity between them is not slight of hand on Denis’ part, but rather the ambiguity which exists between men and women. Flowing from their first encounter, Lionel and Josephine’s relationship is emphatically posited as that of father and daughter. Yet viewed absent context (as in the opening scene), the familial relation of the two is overwhelmed by the implicit sensuality of a beautiful woman greeting a beautiful man just come home from work. These two love each other absolutely. Living together in this flat as they have for some time, the physical boundaries between them have eroded. Josephine touches her father to communicate her love to him. It is at once unsettling and, in the same moment, completely natural, a thing that happens less as fathers and daughters age. For Ms. Denis’ characters here, it has remained constant.

In much more simple measures, the film is just as curious about the joys and sorrows of work. Set out to study a side of French citizenry little explored in cinema, Denis does her best to root the film in the everyday lives of these people. Lionel is a train operator in the Parisian rail system, his closest friends are French-African train operators, the route he services is filled to standing with people of French-African heritage, and over the film’s opening titles — an extended glide along the rails from the vantage of the operators’ booth — the image winds through neighborhoods most view only on the gray journey from the Charles de Gaulle airport to the City of Lights.

One of Lionel’s closest friends, who has run the rails for the better part of his life, finds himself faced with forced retirement. In a fitting coda, the two men share an exchange that leads to one of the film’s great visual images. Says the friend: “Surrendering … surrendering to this condition is what’s so hard.” Much later, Lionel finally replies: “When I get dark thoughts … I think of my daughter.”

35 Shots of Rum is possibly Denis’ most humanistic character study, thoughtful, endearing, and rendered with exemplary tact, as through it all, there is never any doubt that the two people at the center of this film are a loving and complete family — no more, no less.

[35 Shots of Rum opens December 18th in San Francisco, at the Lumière.]

Barry Jenkins is a writer/director living in San Francisco. His recent or current projects include the feature film MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY and the recently completed shorts TALL ENOUGH and A YOUNG COUPLE. Check out his Vimeo channel for more. More from this author →