(Claire Denis, 2009) At first glance, 35 Shots of Rum appears to exalt routine. Establishing takes linger on Paris’ suburban metro system, a Piet Mondrian transit-scape of oily black and streaking yellow. The rhythm of working-class urban life might have soothed us, but the lazy accordion strains overlaying these scenes are too weary. We’re comforted by these images—by subsequent images of characters returning home from a day’s work—but we’re also set on edge. Denis’ film evokes the mood of routine, then proceeds to demonstrate routine’s danger: our reliance on sameness constricts those around us. The story centers on widower Lionel (Alex Descas) and his grad-student daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), but their lovely domesticity walls them off. Their intimacy is almost uncomfortably close, and Lionel’s reliance on Jo keeps her suitor (Grégoire Colin) at bay, and relegates his own devotee (Nicole Dogue) to neighborly status. In Denis’ world, familial routine is ground zero for a viral, existential loneliness, which is reified in the Sartrean figure of a subway conductor (Julieth Mars Toussaint) condemned to freedom upon retirement. “We all live such withdrawn lives,” sighs Jo’s aunt (Ingrid Caven), a sibyl character whose vocalization towards film’s end helps to disentangle the father/daughter dyad. In an early scene, Jo neglects a rice-cooker she bought in deference to one selected by her father; it takes the length of the film for Lionel to grasp the appliance’s symbolism, which the audience, for the most part, groks at once.
Denis renders the needy parent archetype in rich and dignified form. Relationship as a concept is at the heart of the film, not Lionel, who’s just one of several fascinating characters in a study of distance within the confines of expectation (familial, societal, global). Human barriers are expressed not just in Denis’ semiotics of glance and gesture, but in the production design itself. With the help of her longtime art director (Arnaud de Moleron) and cinematographer (Agnes Godard), Denis uses light and framing to emphasize the actual walls that background her players (her technique from I Can’t Sleep is perfected here). The lighting design may seem everyday, even accidental at first, but it frames, spotlights or bathes characters with remarkable deliberation. This is the film that confirms Denis’ acute sensitivity to color; she is the antithesis to Almodovar, using hues in such subtle gradations that we feel the shifting tones onscreen before we see them. Her dominant blues and blue-grays are fetching in their melancholy, and they’re challenged by the warmer palettes in the film’s centerpiece, a bar scene destined to be discussed for years. Using the structure of swapping dance partners to gauge relationship, Denis makes a cliché spank with novelty and allows relationships to modify with gorgeous subtlety over the course of a single evening out. Lionel, who could only pay lip service to Jo’s autonomy until now, begins to privilege sight over words, as Denis herself would hope of her audience. It’s an astonishing moment of acting for all involved, and an astonishing sequence of filmmaking absolutely among the best of all time. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on In Review Online, as part of theirTop 15 Films of the Year feature, on January 23, 2009.)