35 Shots of Rum
Directed by Claire Denis
As in so many of Claire Denis's lovely films, a tug homeward is at work in 35 Shots of Rum, and it's a matter of the heart as much as it is a place. Maybe that's part of what people mean when plunking down "postcolonialism" in discussions of the peerless French filmmaker, but language makes all the difference. And so too does Denis's ineffably elegant way of getting inside the orbit of a railman, his doting university-student daughter, and two neighbors drifting back into their lives.
All of them are staying put for the moment, though sometimes a moment that's extended years. Joséphine (Mati Diop) and her father Lionel (Alex Descas) live together with the practiced intimacy of an old married couple; sitting at her desk, she smiles at the mere sounds of him moving about elsewhere in the apartment. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who drives a cab, seems overly affectionate towards the two, and clings to past bonds that aren't fully shared. Noe (Grégoire Colin) is first seen lurking by a stairwell and has designs on Joséphine, but his worst sins are skeezy hair and an inertial attachment to his dead parents' unchanged duplex.
There are also dips into Lionel's circle of fellow Afro-Caribbean co-workers, but despite one dangerously downcast recent retiree, Denis works her way through headspaces rather than dramatic spikes. Together with magic-working DP Agnès Godard, she brings you close to each character's vibe in turn, which then makes the selectively filtered group scenes all the more warmly alive. Cooped up together in a car en route to a concert, the quartet of characters instantly communicates what works or doesn't in their relationships. Later, when they're detoured by engine trouble into a cozy bar after hours, tensions and longings open up with an ephemeral dance in this chance refuge from a rainy, failed night out.
Once you're into the ebb and flow of the film, borne partly by Godard's tranquil clarity (a glowing train taillight, the fatherly-masculine blue/black/grey of Lionel's bedroom, every flicker across Joséphine's soft features), you begin to feel Denis has solved some basic problem of rendering experience in movies. Not that there is any one solution, but that hers is ever so sure where others would turn coy, obscure, or otherwise self-consciously resistant.
And when people share the feel of a Denis movie, you often sense a reluctance to put too much weight on the details, as if fixing 35 Shots into words banalizes the film. As is, it's a bit of a lopsided work, but still the best thing out there, and with Headless Woman it makes one of the headiest, most spellbinding paired runs Film Forum has presented.
Opens September 16 at Film Forum