35 Shots of Rum (2008)

After seeing most of her films, one would think I’d begin to know something about Claire Denis’ films. At the least, one would think I’d understand where she was coming from. If there’s one thing I’ve learned up to this point is sometimes I just don’t know with Denis. And while 35 Shots of Rum is one of her most loved and revered films, I don’t get the appeal.

I like the core relationship a lot. Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop), live together on the outskirts of Paris. Both a very close to each other, often working to do some little thing for the other person or giving up the chance to do their own thing by being together. But both will never be able to move on with their lives as long as they try to maintain this status quo.

Therefore, the film builds around this gradual movement of people growing slowly towards each other, of both Lionel and Josephine finding that someone that promises the potential for a new life, another chapter in their personal history.

The problem is that the film takes its sweet time before digging into these relationships. Both Lionel and Josephine are so hell-bent on remaining the same, that they blow off and ignore those around them, occasionally in a very harsh manner. This makes the development of these characters slow.

Once they start stepping out beyond their comfort zone, the film gets a lot better. Spending time where these characters are forced into proximity with each other makes the tensions and relationships work. I wish the entire film was stuck under such pressure, forcing these characters to face each other instead of languishing in the distance they all keep.

Instead, I’m left with a lot of scenes where I’m left confused and unsure of what each moment was supposed to do. A lot of Josephine’s scenes in particular seem pointless. Her days in school don’t add to our understanding of anything and neither does her job in a music store. And, as moments on their own, they aren’t memorable.

But even then, I have to admire Denis’ craft. She’s able to build relationships and tell this story with very little dialogue. What is there is often economic and gets to the heart of the matter. Denis would rather speak with the tongue of music and it makes for some great music moments throughout the film. And the photoplay does a fantastic job of weaving emotions and progressing relationships without dialogue.

I’m a bit disappointed that 35 Shot of Rum left me so cold. It was the film I was looking forward to the most from Denis and it’s a film that did very little for me. It lingered in the wrong places and never quite became as sensory and tactile as the rest of her body of work. I still admire the craft and I do think it’s got some soul that appeals to me, but I never felt the greatness of Denis’ finest features.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing