“35 Shots” a Deliberate but Delightful Look at Family Life
By Yvette Cervera '11, Staff Writer
To know director Claire Denis’ films is to love them. For those viewers prone to bouts of restlessness during a film’s idle moments, Denis’ typically slow-paced narratives will be a challenge to sit through. Those filmgoers more stalwart of mind will delight in her meticulous attention to detail, which provides enough of a visual feast to make up for a lack of action.

For the past 20 years since her first feature film “Chocolat” debuted, what has separated Denis from other filmmakers is how her depiction of seemingly insignificant mundane activities reveals their meaning in the grand scheme of the lives of her characters. Her latest project, “35 Shots of Rum,” is a perfect example of her signature minimalist method of filmmaking, which is not only aesthetically pleasing but captivating in its bareness.

“35 Shots of Rum” tells the story of African immigrant Lionel (Alex Descas) and his mixed-race daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop). The tight-knit pair lives in a high-rise apartment on the outskirts of Paris, where they have unconsciously constructed a bubble in which they have lived harmoniously and securely since the death of Joséphine’s German-born mother. The close relationship between Lionel and Joséphine is evident in the comfort each receives from the presence of the other.

Lionel goes about his days as an operator for the Paris metro system — a perfect job to suit his tranquil nature. Lionel is the textbook definition of the “strong, silent type,” only imparting words of wisdom when the occasion calls for him to do so. His word count during the entire film is practically nonexistent, which makes everything he says all the more important.

Joséphine is similarly easygoing. She gracefully juggles being a student at a nearby university, working late nights at a Virgin record store and cooking meals for and looking after her father. She appears to be content with the daily routine that she and her father have established, which makes Lionel worry that she is sacrificing her freedom to take care of him.

Both Joséphine and her father are undeniably beautiful, eliciting the admiration of their neighbors, the relentless wanderer Noé (Grégoire Colin) and the middle-aged cab driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), with no discernible effort. While Noé is more reserved in his affection for Joséphine, Gabrielle’s unrequited love for Lionel is apparent in their every interaction.

It isn’t always clear what role each of these four individuals assumes in the lives of the others — even including Lionel and Joséphine on occasion — although this uncertainty is deliberate on Denis’ part. The film’s intentional ambiguity gives the audience the power to fill in the missing pieces and to make what it will of the final product.

Clearing up some of the film’s ambiguity is its turning point, which takes place after the four neighbors get stranded on their way to a concert. After Gabrielle’s cab breaks down, they seek refuge from the rain in a small African restaurant, where they dry off, order a round of drinks and dance to The Commodores’ “Night Shift.”

This pivotal sequence demonstrates Denis’ incredible ability to convey her characters’ shifting emotions through their eyes. No dialogue is needed to express Gabrielle’s disappointment as her gaze despondently lingers on Lionel dancing with the beautiful restaurant owner, just as there are no words that can better relate the look of longing Noé bestows upon Joséphine as he leads her across the dance floor.

Aside from this emotionally-charged sequence, there are no major events that occur to advance the film. Denis is a storyteller as much as she is a filmmaker, although her method of telling a story involves following a narrative from start to finish, giving it the time to evolve naturally.

With a storytelling method such as this, the film benefits greatly from the talent of its lead actors. Descas and Colin have both previously worked with Denis on multiple occasions, while Diop and Dogue are newcomers to the world of the brilliant filmmaker. It is Descas in particular whose silently powerful presence forms the heart of the film.

Everything about this film, from the entrancing performances of the four lead actors to the beautiful cinematography by Agnes Godard, is understated, yet incredibly moving — as is characteristic of Denis’ previous work. “35 Shots of Rum” revels in the minute details of everyday life, imbuing each shot with such depth and purpose as to encourage viewers to be active participants in the film for fear of missing some crucial element of the story.

Issue 24, Submitted 2010-04-29 21:15:10