At the end of 2009, I noticed somewhat of an anomaly in Sight and Sound. Ranking the best films of the year, the magazine highlighted two films by director Claire Denis within the top ten: White Material and 35 Shots of Rum (on the festival circuit in 2008, 35 Shots was released in 2009 in the UK). In fact, 35 Shots of Rum earned joint second position alongside The Hurt Locker (The Prophet trumped both at No.1). Therefore, in a recent ‘Jim Jarmusch and Friends’ season, the BFI took the opportunity to screen the film again to celebrate her influences. And Jim Jarmusch was more than an influence too as she worked as Assistant Director on Down by Law only two years before her own directorial debut.
In the case of 35 Shots of Rum, though it focuses on relationships akin to Jarmusch, it holds a central story that evokes the quiet tenderness of Yasujirō Ozu. Living within a small, tight-knit community is Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop). We see an evening routine as the two return home from a long day. Lionel, a widower, works on the metro while Josephine studies. Their relationship is very close and it is clear that they depend on each other. We are introduced also to a neighbour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue). She has feelings for Lionel, and has had these for a long time. The young man in an apartment below, Noe (Gregoire Colin), is detached and unsettled. He doesn’t know whether he is coming or going, but we know Josephine means more to him than he lets on. These four characters depend on each other and we glide through their lives and await a change – or as Roger Ebert put it in his review, a “shift”.
What makes 35 Shots of Rum so engaging is the calmness of the story. The opening moments, as Jo and Lionel busy themselves in the cramped apartment, is almost without words. In fact, the only reason we realise they are Father and daughter is the passing, flippant “Merci, Papa”, noted by many as a shock when revealed. While this personal story can be considered poetic on its own small-scale, Claire Denis hints at larger themes that have always interested her. The use of transport alludes to a different social standing between the characters. Noe drives his own car; something that Lionel seems unimpressed to hear. Lionel himself is an experienced train engineer while Gabrielle operates her own taxi. Their clear connection to public services show roots of socialism that no doubt pulls the two together. Lionel’s passing remark, “we have everything here” as Noe leaves their flat assures us that he is aware of young men and their reliance on material possessions – opposed to strong, loving relationships and the importance of playing a vital role in society. Noe’s treatment of his cat, for example, seems somewhat shocking.
But Denis doesn’t force the issue. These are nuanced characteristics that float in the back of our minds. In a city whereby hot drinks steam in the windy weather and shabby interiors are almost claustrophobic, 35 Shots of Rum feels true. A contrast between the open plains of a beach coast against the urban city mirrors Ozu’s influence further, but 35 Shots of Rum stands on its own and deserves the praise it receives. Subtle and personal, 35 Shots of Rum is a film that tells of the inevitable changes to come and its effect on a family – and the unexpected future they will have to accept.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth