Friday, April 25, 2014

35 Shots Of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)

A strange thing happened to me after watching Claire Denis' 35 Shots Of Rum. Once the film was over, I thought I would forget both the story and its characters very quickly, because it seemed to me that nothing remarkable had happened during its 100 minutes running time. Only after a few days I realized how much the film had settled in my mind, despite (or maybe I should say precisely because of) its unremarkability. 

The opening, mainly consisting of tracking shots taken from inside a train driver's cabin, establishes the film's unhurried pacing. Like the river in Jean Renoir's 1951 eponymous movie, the train here is a symbol for the slow, incessant flow of life. It's the end of a working day like any other for Lionel and Joséphine. Lionel is a train conductor for the Paris railways in his middle age, while twenty-something Joséphine works as a salesgirl at a CD store and studies anthropology. We don't get immediately the nature of their relationship, but their intimacy is palpable in the air already in the first shots, where the two characters seem to occupy the same physical space, while actually traveling in different trains. Are they together? It could well be, despite the considerable age difference.

The ambiguity is not resolved until they reunite at home, as Lionel and Joséphine are revealed to be, not without a jarring effect, father and daughter  ̶  a fact that eloquently explains the unresolved, non-committal interactions they have with their friends and partners. Their apartment in the 18th arrondissement, a sort of comfortable nest where they happily return every night, appears off-limits even for their neighbors Gabrielle (who loves Lionel and would be happy to act as a substitute for Joséphine's dead mother) and Noé (a solitary globetrotter for whom Joséphine is the only motivation for staying in Paris). Together, they form a sort of strange, dissociated extended family.

But change is around the corner, and Denis prepares us for it with quiet scenes whose importance we might easily overlook: the purchase of a rice cooker, the reading of a letter, a dance on the notes of The Commodores' fittingly-titled "Nightshift". Sometimes a character's glance is enough to suggest that something huge has happened. The shifts the characters face have a universal value, as they represent obligatory transitions from one stage of maturity to another: the acceptance of sons' adulthood, their natural separation from family, the challenges of retirement and old age. The major shift happens at the beginning of the movie's second half, as the main characters (Lionel, Gabrielle, Joséphine and Noé) are caught in the middle of a downpour on their way to a concert due to a car breakdown. They find refuge in a little bar run by a young black woman and her son, who offer them towels to dry off and a hot meal accompanied by mellow music. The scene unfolds in a suspended atmosphere, and has an almost religious resonance. The barmaid has the appearance of a merciful goddess who not only takes care of her guests, but helps them unravel their unresolved conflicts as well. I was reminded of a pivotal scene in 2011 Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, and of countless fairy tales where a wanderer caught in a storm finds shelter in some hospitable stranger's house.

Until now I have not discussed the film's cast, which consists almost entirely of black actors. The reason for this omission is that although Denis places the characters in a rather precise social context, I never felt she employed them to convey a social message. The focus is constantly on the family drama, and if Denis is making some point about ethnic integration in contemporary French society, she does it silently. Not by pushing our emotional buttons, but simply integrating an all-black cast in an organic and hardly noticeable way (she explains the reasons for this choice in this informative interview).

Everything that happens in the movie appears effortlessly natural, and originates from the characters' nuanced traits. But don't make mistake: This naturalness is not the fruit of improvisation. Even the scenes that seem gratuitous or unnecessary are meticulously staged in order to convey significance, or make the plot advance. In one paradigmatic scene, in Noé's absence Lionel enters in his apartment to close a window rattling in the wind  ̶  not exactly a plot turning point. But what follows seems even more purposeless: He sits on Noé's sofa, and emits a fart. How are we supposed to interpret this scene? Once the surprise effect is gone, the answer is quite simple  ̶  Lionel is marking territory in his rival's house. I've already witnessed flatulence used for comic effect in movies, but this is undoubtedly the only movie I've seen to feature a fart with a precise narrative purpose.

Apart from Yasujiro Ozu's oeuvre, which Denis has openly drawn inspiration from, her filmmaking style in 35 Shots Of Rum has apparently much in common with the work of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. The Decalogue especially came to my mind, in particular the fourth episode of the series about the tormented relationship between young Anka, an acting student, and his father Michal, and how they cope with Michal's dubious fatherhood and a potentially incestuous mutual attraction. Kieslowski's Anka and Denis' Gabrielle share an inability to fully commit to love due to ambiguous parental relationships, with negative repercussions on their academic careers as well: Anka has problems in identifying with the characters she plays, and likewise Gabrielle has difficulty in developing her critical thinking skills. In both films, the finding of a letter helps the protagonist realize that something's wrong with her father. Moreover, backdrop of both movies is a beehive-like apartment block where the residents live "withdrawn lives" (as Joséphine's aunt points out), with the elevator cabin as the place where their vital space is threatened, and forced intimacy causes tensions to arise.

Denis here opts for narrative economy: The characters come out as alive and breathing not as a result of convenient explanations or immersive dialogues, but because their fragmented conversations and their prolonged silences force us to fill in the blanks about them just as we do with real people. We are constantly encouraged to fantasize about the elements that the film doesn't make clear: How did Joséphine's mother die? Is Lionel's former colleague René homosexual? And why exactly 35 shots of rum? These questions (you may have yours as well) remain unanswered, so that we get the feeling that the characters go on living outside of the screen, as if they existed independently of our knowledge of them. And this is a remarkable achievement indeed.

Apartment blocks in Warsaw (The Decalogue IV).

Apartment blocks in Paris (35 Shots Of Rum).
Anka with her father in the elevator (The Decalogue IV).

Joséphine and Lionel get out of the elevator (35 Shots Of Rum).

Anka at the theater rehearsals (The Decalogue IV).

Joséphine at anthropology class (35 Shots Of Rum).

Anka finds a letter from her mother (The Decalogue IV).

Joséphine finds a love letter from Gabrielle to her father (35 Shots Of Rum).

Anka fantasizes about her mother (The Decalogue IV).

Joséphine tries to piece together memories of her German mother (35 Shots Of Rum)

Anka with her father Michal (The Decalogue IV).

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