In 35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis presents a tender and heartfelt film that is both tragic and inspiring. The film follows Lionel (Alex Descaus) a widowed train operator who lives with his grown daughter Josephine (Mati Diop). Father and daughter seem to have a great relationship, but as the film progresses we begin to see that their affection towards one another seems to be out of routine; it becomes evident that they both wish to seek love and affection elsewhere. Living with them in the apartment complex is Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) a local taxi driver who has had a past relationship with Lionel, through her actions it is obvious that she envisions a life with Lionel and his daughter, as she conducts motherly duties with Josephine and frequently references her former relationship with Lionel. Despite her attempts, Lionel does not seem interested in restarting their relationship, possibly due to his attachment to his daughter or his commitment to his deceased wife. Then there is Noe, a handsome young man who is attracted to Josephine. Josephine is clearly interested in Noe, but is conflicted, as she knows that by pursuing a relationship with Noe it will fracture the stable but mundane life that she has with her father. Throughout the film we see the characters trying to win the affection of those that they love and we watch as they experience the heartbreak of rejection, and the realization that their contrived fantasies of love are a sharp contrast to their realities.
A character study in every sense of the word, the film relies more on the actions of the characters as opposed to dialogue. The most powerful moments in the film are in the moments of silence, and we are given further insight into the minds of the characters based on what they don’t say rather than what they do. The lack of dialogue in the film allows the audience to become completely entrenched in the film’s world, through the use of close-ups and voyeur styled camera angles, the film has moments that come off almost like a documentary. Claire Denis invites us into these characters lives and we are given a film that shows that some of the most painful and life changing events can happen behind closed doors.
Although not clearly stated, the film does touch a number of cultural issues. Set in a Parisian suburb, populated predominately by blacks. This was very intriguing to me because although there is high population of blacks in France, rarely do we see this culture reflected in French cinema. Lionel’s daughter is bi-racial, as is Gabrielle; Noe (Josephine’s love interest) is white. The cultural make-up of the characters does seem to form some sort of tension between the characters and proves to be another obstacle in preventing the idealized relationships from forming. There is also a sub-plot in the film involving a long time co-worker of Lionel’s not being able to accept to retirement, realizing that as a black man there is nothing for him to aspire to in France besides the train yard job that he has held for years. The director is commenting on the hardships that many blacks face in France and also uses this secondary character as a model of what Lionel is in danger of becoming.
With such sparse dialogue, there is an enormous amount of pressure on the actor’s to express themselves purely through actions. The chemistry among the actors was excellent and the performances of Alex Descas and Mati Diop stood out the most. They displayed how a near incestuous relationship between father and daughter can still contain so much distance and insecurity. Great acting and brilliant camera work was accompanied by an engrossing score that frequently expressed through music what the characters and director were unwilling or unable to say.
35 Shots of Rum is one of those rare films that invite’s the audience into the lives of real people as they seek meaning and identity by vying for the affections of others. Despite its simple and slow presentation this is a film that will stay with you and almost certainly warrant a second viewing.