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In French director Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum, the world becomes, in author Sharon Salzberg's phrase, "transparent and illuminated, as though lit from within". It is a film of infinite tenderness in which the characters lives are delicately interwoven to build a tapestry of interconnectedness that signals life's inevitable passages. Reminiscent of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumiére with its intimate depiction of city life and the coming and going of trains, 35 Shots of Rum pays homage to Yasujiro Ozu in its story of the relationship between Lionel (Alex Descas), a train conductor of African descent whose striking features convey a sense of stoic dignity and his student daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) who is eager to assert her independence.
Like the relationship of Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in Ozu's films, the focus is on the mundane occurrences of everyday life, the quiet intimacies in which meaning is revealed only by implication. While the characters are black, their lives are comfortably middle class and the only suggestion of racial issues is a classroom scene where Jo talks about how "the global South" is indebted to the industrial north. Set to a lovely score by the British band "Tindersticks" and gloriously choreographed by cinematographer Agnes Godard, the film opens with a ten minute montage of the crisscrossing of trains of the RER, the system that connects Paris to its suburbs.
Interspersed are close-up shots of Josephine, Lionel, and his co-worker René (Julieth Mars Toussaint) whose immanent retirement signals a depressing change in his life. As the scene shifts to a small Paris apartment, like a married couple, Lionel and Josephine settle into a domestic routine of cooking, cleaning, and showering, their relationship of father and daughter not made clear until we see a photograph of a younger Jo and her German mother. This initial opaqueness seems to pervade a film that relies on the viewer to fill in the blanks. It is clear from the outset, however, that Lionel is dependent on his daughter and fears her eventual departure.
Although he tells her reassuringly, "Don't feel I need to be looked after Just feel free", he also lets her know her that "We have everything here. Why go looking elsewhere?" His happiness is threatened by upstairs neighbor Noé (Gregoire Colin), a scruffy-looking young man who lives with his cat and does not hide his feelings for Jo even while vowing to move to Gabon for a job. We are also introduced to Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), a taxi driver who is attached to Lionel and may have been his lover. This unlikely quartet form an extended family and their deep seated feelings for each other are revealed in an illuminating scene in a café after their car breaks down in route to a concert.
Lionel's conflicted feelings about his daughter's growing up become apparent when the intimate dance between father and daughter to the song "Night Shift" by the Commodores is interrupted by Noé who cuts in and immediately ups the romantic ante. Lionel's jealousy is also reflected by Gabrielle shortly afterwards as she watches Lionel dancing with the café's attractive hostess. In an unexpected trip to Germany to visit a friend (or sister) of Jo's late mother's, the inner lives of the characters and the bonds that hold them together are further explored, although little happens on the surface.
To say that 35 Shots of Rum is a film of mystery belies the fact that it is also quite accessible though in a very rich and subtle way. Its achievement lies in its ability to create memorable characters and fully involve us in their lives without relying on extended conflict, outward displays of emotion, or even a coherent narrative, drawing its power from its creation of magic through silences, glances, and a loving warmth that lingers in the memory. It is one of Denis' best films.
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