Having never seen a film by noted French director Claire Denis, her acclaimed latest feature 35 Shots of Rum seemed a good place to start. Set in Paris, the loose story revolves around taciturn subway worker Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), a college student. They’ve lived together in the same apartment all their lives, and have formed close ties with the friendly taxi driver Gabrielle down the hall (Nicole Dogué) and Noé, the young traveler upstairs (Grégoire Colin), but their own relationship is the strongest and most important to both of them. Their daily lives are examined closely- both how they interact with one another and with friends and colleagues. The sudden discussion of Joséphine moving out on her own and the possibility of Noé moving away for good cause some friction for the father/daughter pair.
This is a simple, quiet, peaceful film at its core. With many close, intimate shots of the central characters and natural, undramatic conversations, Denis offers a realistic and intensely personal view of a certain urban French family. The story isn’t much, but generally it doesn’t need to be, as the powerful performances and thoughtful cinematography easily ensnare the viewer. Mati Diop is wonderful as Joséphine, conveying a very real and nuanced character in an impressive first screen performance. Alex Descas is also memorable as Lionel. He doesn’t say much, but is able to communicate quite effectively through look and action. All of the actors work well with a script that’s limited in expository or revelatory dialogue, instead relying on subtleties and assumptions to establish character and relationships.
It’s also nice to see a drama with a predominantly black cast that doesn’t get caught up in racial discourse- their ethnicity is rarely brought up, but it’s still maintained as culturally significant. Plus Joséphine’s mixed background is touched upon in a cool way near the end. But I assume race relations are a bit different in France than in America, because of, you know… history?
While I really enjoyed 35 Shots of Rum as I was watching it, by the time the ending rolled around I felt slightly unfulfilled. I realized the story and pacing are just a little too loose, too unfocused. There are a few subplots that are set up and then forgotten, or insufficiently elaborated upon, and it felt like the script had lost itself somewhere along the line. It’s a really beautiful film, in both visuals and theme, but it left me a little unsatisfied. After reading more about Denis and her style and subject matter I’m definitely interested in seeing some of her other works, though, especially her debut Chocolat. Any recommendations?
PS I’m trying a new thing in which I recommend movies to go with the ones I review, or to watch instead for similar themes done differently/better. Just fyi, that’s what’s happening.
Pair This Movie With: Lost in Translation for another closely-observed, nuanced performance piece set in another country.
Watch Instead: Paper Moon to see a more fun exploration of a (presumably) father/daughter relationship.