I missed 35 Shots of Rum last year, so I caught up—and fell in love—with it last night on Netflix.
The main characters are a magnetic father and daughter, the self-contained Lionel (Alex Descas) and Joséphine (Mati Diop), a young woman who alternates between radiant self-confidence and diffidence. The two live alone in a compact but tidy apartment in the suburbs of Paris, since Jo’s mother died when she was an infant. Neither talks much (especially Lionel, a Metro conductor who loves the solitude of his cab), so we learn how they feel mostly by watching their eyes and body language. Director Claire Denis seems to be observing rather than directing the action, capturing the rhythms of her characters’ daily lives and their deepest thoughts and feelings.
As they make dinner or clean up afterward, curl up on the couch, or bring home the dueling rice cookers that become a symbol of their relationship, the intimacy between Jo and Lionel is amplified by the small spaces they inhabit
. Their apartment isn’t big enough to offer much privacy, and the motorcycle they get around on brings them that much closer, Jo hugging Lionel tight on a seat big enough for just two. Their life is comfortable, cosy, and loving, yet we feel something missing even if they can’t. Like Jo’s German aunt, who they visit when they take a road trip together, we want to see them open up more to other people. “We all lead such withdrawn lives,” her aunt says. “Everyone in his corner.”
Lionel insists that they have all they need, but Joséphine is clearly ready for a mate and so is he, much as he resists the idea. Conveniently—or maybe not—father and daughter both have suitors right there in the building. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) has longed to join Lionel’s family since Josephine was a baby, and Noé (Grégoire Colin) clearly feels the same way about Josephine, though he’s too guarded to express his feelings as freely as the soft-eyed Gabrielle. We watch these four circle around one another until Jo and her father realize—separately and, typically, without any discussion—that its time for them to part.
The music is an organic and essential part of this quiet, deliberately paced story. A contemplative, poignant theme song helps set the emotional tone, and soulful songs like Sophia George’s “Can’t Live Without You,” Harry Belafonte’s “Merci Bon Dieu,” and the Commodores’s “Nightshift” sometimes float to the forefront, always as an integral part of the scene as the characters dance to a song in a bar or turn it up on a car radio.
Denis says the film is a tribute to Ozu, and I can see why: It’s a truthful, unsensationalized, beautifully acted story about family life that builds slowly to a profound emotional climax. But 35 Shots of Rum doesn’t have the stately stillness of an Ozu film. From the opening montage, shots of moving trains intercut with images of Jo on a train and Lionel waiting for her, this film seems to flow, moving seamlessly from one moment or one person’s perspective to the next. That’s not to say that cinematographer Agnès Godard’s camera keeps moving in that ADD way of way too many movies these days; on the contrary, it often lingers on a beautifully composed shot of a face or a significant item, like the white lace gloves on a table at the end of the movie. This flow comes more from the editing and maybe the script, which cut out all fat and connective tissue to cut from one significant moment to another, juxtaposing them to show us how one person’s actions affect someone else.
In the midst of all this motion, the main characters are like rocks in a stream, each defending his or her turf or leaning toward someone else in a long-held position. Denis doesn’t load the dice with them, showing them in all their often prickly complexity. And though there is a wedding at the end, she leaves things open-ended, respecting her characters and her audience too much to placate us with a fairy-tale ending.
But that ambiguous ending is much more satisfying than some tacky tacked-on happy ending. We may not know what happens next, but when do we ever? What matters is that Jo and her father have come out of their corner to join the flow of life.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.