Finding the most sincere of relationships can exist almost entirely on everyday rituals, which at times corresponds to a mutual comfort in silence, the characters in Claire Denis‘ new film 35 Shots of Rum rely so much on their actions and gazes that every bit of dialogue is precious. That is not to say that their words, when spoken, come across as overly meaningful; in fact, most of the time they simply relate to the rituals themselves.
Early in the film, we see the two main characters making their way home to an apartment complex in a Paris suburb. We see them entering a neatly furnished apartment, first Lionel (played by Alex Descas), and then his daughter, Joséphine (played by Mati Diop). Still shots that linger as each subject moves out the frame reveal the care and deliberateness of each of the characters’ movements, as well as the apartment’s details. After Joséphine comes home and meets her father in the kitchen, the first hints about the nature of their relationship begin to appear. Lionel unveils to her a new rice cooker, and she responds pleasantly, “I didn’t think you’d remember,” and sets upon preparing their dinner. In the previous scene, we witnessed Joséphine picking out a rice cooker from a shop window, yet her happy response to her father’s purchase, and the fact that she doesn’t reveal to him that she has also bought one, leave the viewer uncertain about how to interpret her actions. We might immediately assume that she didn’t want to hurt her father’s pride, but given the reflective, steady pacing up to this point, the director Denis seems to be teaching us to defer our interpretations until we have witnessed more of these moments.
Much like Denis’ earlier Beau Travail (1999), most of 35 Shots of Rum is without dialogue. While Beau Travail focused on the Djiboutian landscape and the beauty of young men in rituals of physical exertion, here the setting and story instead revolve around everyday Parisian life. Lionel, a widower, is a conductor for a commuter train line connecting Paris and its surrounding suburbs. We witness his subjective view from the conductor’s seat along with the opening credits and periodically throughout the film. This reflective daily routine, and the fact that the handsome Alex Descas possesses such a commanding presence, verifies the authenticity of his quiet nature, dismissing the idea that it is just a simple narrative device used by Denis to create an air of mystery.* We eventually learn that his relationship with Joséphine is the strongest force in his life, and it’s the same for Joséphine. A beautiful young university student, she of course has some interactions with interested young men, etc., but with every action she takes, there seems to be some consideration for her father. Her terseness towards a neighbor who is romantically interested in her father, as well as her reluctancy to open herself up to a young man in her building, are clearly rooted in her attachment to Lionel.
The unresolved problem remains as to whether any of these outside distractions will ever (or should ever) have the potential to be as strong as this father-daughter bond. Written as an homage to Ozu (more specifially Late Spring), and partly based on Denis’ own grandfather’s relationship with her mother, Denis had long hoped to cast Alex Descas in this fatherly role. In one of the scenes involving the eponymous 35 shots, Descas’ ability to utter bluntly poetic (and obviously drunken) quips to his onlooking colleagues and friends, serves to mask the ritual’s meaning to the characters, while simultaneously revealing it to himself and the viewer. That he can laconically divulge the heart of his problems over a few drunken lines is a tribute to his acting ability, as well as Denis’ ability to tell a story. And while the viewer may be satisfied to learn the explanation of the ritual, the process of its revelation is ultimately more significant.
35 Shots of Rum opens at Film Forum on September 16th.
*For stylized versions of such characters, it’s perhaps worth looking at Forrest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai or Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control. This is at first might not seem like a fair comparison, given that these two films aren’t attempting to be realist in any way, but it serves as a pretty easy lesson considering that Jarmusch seems to be embracing the artificiality of the landscapes these two characters inhabit.