Monday, July 18, 2011

35 Shots of Rum

In 35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis captures the slow, quotidian rhythms of life for the working class people living in a particular apartment block in Paris, especially the train conductor Lionel (Alex Descas) and his student daughter Jo (Mati Diop). There are dramas in these people's lives, but they are small-scale, domestic dramas, rooted in discontent, restlessness, race, class, and the unspoken but powerful desire for a different life. The film's incidents are mostly intimate and subtle. One night, Jo buys a rice cooker, and when her dad comes home he reveals that he bought her one as well; no doubt she'd told him about it but hadn't expected him to remember. She just smiles, thanks him, and doesn't tell him about the duplication. The subsequent shot of Jo holding the rice cooker she'd bought, still in its box, and smiling warmly, suggests everything one needs to know about the close, affectionate relationship between father and daughter.

Denis builds the film's emotional foundation from such small, casual moments. The film is slow and soft, narratively slack and drifting, qualities that give its actual dramatic incidents a greater heft for arising out of the steady pulse of ordinary life. This is the work of a director self-assured in her own style, settling into the comfortable rhythms of her characters with a profound sense of quietude. The film opens with the hushed, gentle music of Tindersticks — Denis' longtime musical collaborators — softly caressing the sensual images of trains and train stations that introduce the film. The soundtrack mirrors the film's visual aesthetic in its simplicity and ghostly beauty: pastoral flute, the hesitant strum of acoustic guitars, the occasional barely noticeable humming of vocalist Stuart Staples. In the opening scenes of the film, the camera looks out the front of a train at the tracks stretching out before it. The passengers are ghostly reflections in the windows of the train cars. The train enters a tunnel in the daytime and when it emerges, Denis cuts to gorgeously lit nighttime images, trains passing in the darkness lit up inside with yellow and pale blue hues, apartment blocks similarly illuminated, their windows like banks of tiny televisions in which silhouettes stretch or walk by or smoke while leaning out the window.

Denis has always had an intuitive feel for such temps mort. Here, she invests much of the film's emotionality and sensuality in a handful of evocative set pieces that represent breaks from the day-in/day-out routines of these people's lives. Lionel and Jo look forward to going to a concert with their neighbors Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) and Noé (Grégoire Colin), but when they actually set out on a rainy night in Gabrielle's taxi, the car breaks down, stranding them far from the concert. Instead, they go to a bar where they dance and drink, and Denis lingers lovingly over the little gestures and glances that pass between the characters, as when Lionel desires the pretty bar owner and Jo dances with Noé, who has long shyly wanted her without quite daring to make his feelings known. Gabrielle and Noé represent the steady, subtle pull of other people tugging at the father/daughter bond, but Jo and Lionel continue to cling to one another, resisting the appeal of love and romantic companionship. Jo's mother is dead, and in her absence father and daughter have been self-sufficient, relying only on one another, though with Jo now grown, presumably on the verge of graduating from college, it's obvious that this arrangement can't last forever. Noé wants Jo, and so does her classmate Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly), but still she retains her quiet, isolated life with her reserved father, who so rarely says anything. Lionel, for his part, pushes away, sometimes cruelly, the gentle but persistent advances of Gabrielle, who, as a letter that Jo finds reveals, has pursued Lionel for many years.

Another key scene is Lionel and Jo's visit to a German woman (Ingrid Caven) who seems to be the sister or friend of Jo's mother. They go to see her, and Jo speaks with her in German, while Lionel simply sits quietly, perhaps not understanding very much, perhaps just maintaining his customary silence. Afterward, father and daughter visit Jo's mother's grave, then sit by the beach in their van, watching the wind whip through the tall grass by the shore, watching children walk by in the pink dusk light, holding lanterns and chanting a song, celebrating some holiday. It's a lovely, sensual moment, coming towards the end of the film, and it has an air of finality, as though father and daughter are finally coming to terms with the necessity of change.

That's also the meaning, perhaps, behind the titular 35 shots of rum, a rite which is never explained but which seems to represent a break, a way of marking some great change. There's a sense of sadness in it, but not quite the desolation that's found in the similar climax to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Merchant of Four Seasons, which seems like a subtle reference point here. Caven's presence, certainly, seems like a nod to Fassbinder since she was an actress very much associated with his work, part of the company of actors who he regularly cast in his films. Denis is also dealing with the idea of giving up on life, and Lionel's coworker René (Julieth Mars Toussaint) provides an example of the despair and loneliness that could be waiting for the similarly aged Lionel if he chooses to give up on life as René does. Instead, the shots of rum represent for Lionel, not suicide or despair but a kind of melancholy celebration, an acknowledgment that his daughter is growing up and preparing for a life of her own, and also an acknowledgment that there could still be a life for him in the wake of her departure. The film's final shot economically suggests the splitting of their one life, as father and daughter, into two independent lives, with an elegant visual metaphor that refers all the way back to the early scenes of the film.

35 Shots of Rum is a warm, touching movie with a deeply humanistic concern for the lives of people whose mostly uneventful lives are, in fact, rich with emotion and internal activity even when the surface seems placid and narratively inert. It's notable that both Gabrielle and Lionel are involved in transportation, getting people to where they need to go, while their own lives outside of work remain static and solitary. It's notable, too, that virtually everyone in the film is black or of mixed race, and there are very few signs of Caucasian French people. The film's casting suggests the racial isolation and separation of this society: even in school, Jo takes a class about Third World economics that is, naturally, taken mostly by black students. It is as though, as immigrants or descendants of immigrants in this country, they remain in their own little world, cut off from the larger populace of native French white people. At one point, as René and Lionel are discussing growing old and losing relevance, Denis pointedly cuts away to an elderly white woman sitting alone on the train nearby, as though to suggest that some things are universal, and indeed there is little in the film that explicitly addresses race. It's just a subcurrent, an unavoidable fact of the characters' lives, though the absence of much integration with the dominant culture is another indication of the isolation and separation that Jo and Lionel feel. Thus, their personal disconnection from life and other people becomes a representation or reflection of their larger racial and cultural disconnect from the society in which they live.


Sam Juliano said...

Wonderful essay on one of this greatfilmmaker's finest works. I like the connection there to Fassbinder, and would add that by her own admission Denis was indepted to Ozu's LATE SPRING here. The issue of dependence is and inter-connection is given supreme definition in the film’s most extraordinary scene, (in fact one of the most unforgettable scenes in any film released that year) when the four characters take refuge in a restaurant during a rainstorm and commence some slow-dancing to the Commodores’ “Night Shift.” Considering the complete dearth of dialogue, it’s rather astounding what is effectively communicated here: trepidation and aspirations, and what these people really want and need in their life. There’s clearly a fear of human connection the retreat into privacy is a kind of human shield to avert being hurt. Long-time Denis collaborator, cinematographer Agnes Godard helps to accentuate the dimly-lit interiors, and close-ups are dominant. It’s somewhat miraculous how Denis is able to employ minimalism to stir this kind of character depth. It’s a scene of repressed energy, and it’s Denis’ trademark. Like one of her idols, Ozu, Ms. denis has crafted a work of supreme huimanism here.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. Good comparison to Ozu, who's definitely a fine point of reference for this film's quiet family drama; I didn't know that Denis cited the Japanese master as an influence on this film, but it certainly makes perfect sense. I totally agree with you about the rainstorm scene, which is just amazing, with everything unspoken but dazzlingly clear anyway. Denis has always been a very sensual and detail-oriented filmmaker, and that scene is a highlight of her work in those respects. It's an interesting film, with a lot going on beneath the surface considering how deceptively simple it often seems. I wouldn't quite rank it among Denis' best works, as she's made quite a few films I'd consider even better, but it's a typically gorgeous and quietly provocative work with equal amounts of smarts and beauty.

Troy Olson said...

A fantastic piece here, Ed, especially your description of the Tinderstick's score. Regardless of how ponderous I've found Denis in some of her other films, this one stands out to me with its simple and elegant look at familial relationships.

I agree with you about the "narratively inert" feeling of the film -- outside of the bar scene, the rice cooker situation was the "key" moment I remembered from the film and when that's the case, the story itself obviously isn't the focal point.

But that scene in the bar is mesmerizing to me, one of my all-time favorite scenes, getting across the history and emotions of all the characters without the need for words.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Troy. I totally agree about how great that bar scene is. The film in general is very slow and quiet, very unconcerned with narrative momentum. The result is that small incidents like that resonate in a big way, carrying the emotional charge of the film through unspoken ideas and sentiments.