Saturday, November 20, 2010

35 Shots of Rum

Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum may be the warmest depiction of an Electra complex ever put to film. In fact, it's such a minutely layered, understated work that to pigeonhole it with such a lazy bit of Freudian explanation does a great disservice to its subtlety. Denis' film is not elliptical, merely unspoken, relying on the faces and slightest action to tell the story. As captured by Agnès Godard's quiet but expressive color palette, 35 Shots of Rum makes cinema of the trace elements of life.

Immediately, the director delves into the dynamic between Lionel (Alex Descas), a widower who conducts RER trains in Paris and its suburbs, and his daughter, Joséphine (Mati Dop), a beautiful graduate student working as a teaching assistant at a local school. Jo spots a rice cooker in a shop window and notes how she wants it, coming home later that day after purchasing one only for her dad to surprise her with the exact same thing. "I didn't think you'd remember," she says gratefully as she keeps her own copy out of sight. One naturally assumes that she doesn't tell her father about the cooker she bought out of consideration, not wishing to hurt his pride, but Denis leaves so much hanging in the air that the audience can think about the nature of the father-daughter relationship. As more pieces fall into place, we can better see that moment as a reflection of the intimate but increasingly impersonal bond that links the two: clearly, the death of the mother brought father and child together, and they care so much for each other that no one else seems to register. Yet that is a relationship based upon convenience and proximity. It's only natural that a family should find comfort in each other following a tragedy, but instead of moving on, Jo and Lionel got used to their bond and do not seek anything that might shake up their lives. Dating is hard; not growing up is easy.

Yet there are several hints that the two do not understand and appreciate how close they are. Jo doesn't expect her dad to remember about the cooker when she is the only woman in his life. In turn, Lionel doesn't even have to play the role of the stern dad when boys come calling because Jo turns them all down on her own. A bouncy, middle-aged cab driver, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), lives in the same apartment complex and clearly has feelings for Lionel, but when she comes looking for her beau, Joséphine turns frigid and lightly confrontational. Whether they realize it or not, father and daughter have created a matrimonial relationship, and they subconsciously act to maintain that thread by edging out any other force.

Slowly, however, the pair come to terms with their existence. Lionel attends a retirement party for his friend René, who smiles good-naturedly at his friends' toasts and gifts but looks slightly troubled. He pops up throughout the film, not saying much with his voice but speaking volumes about the predicament in which Lionel might find himself in a few years: by devoting his life to his job, René has nothing left when he retires. If he ever had a family, his offspring moved on, just as all children, even Jo, must. When he reappears every so often, he hangs in the background, a specter in tiny cafés and bars that Lionel sees in his peripheral vision and cannot shake. Denis intended the film as a loose homage to Ozu Yasujiro (it particularly borrows some elements from Late Spring, and René reflects Ozu's solemn musings on the existentialist nature of industrial livelihood: the man retires in good health, but because he defined himself as a train conductor, his life is over.

Also hanging over Lionel as a dark portent is Gabrielle, whose lovesick longing not only gives the man a chance to change his life path but also shows him the danger of pining for something until it's too late. Gabrielle wants to be with Lionel, and Lionel wants to stay with Jo. But once the young woman can no longer fight the nagging urge to make her own life, what will Lionel have?

Denis' camera moves more than Ozu's, but she displays the same eye for body language and the power of a look. Descas has one of those masterful faces, seemingly chiseled from obsidian and filled with dramatic weight. His is a Stoic look, breaking his poker face only to let the slightest hint of deep pain out from behind those eyes. Dogue, on the other hand, is brilliantly convincing as a lovelorn fool awkwardly attempting to hang around the object of her affection until maybe he accepts her. So convincing is she that I thought less of a middle-aged person trying to find love than a hopeless romantic of a teenager hanging around the school halls doing anything to impress the cool boy or girl. Dogue constantly arcs her back and neck, leaning with all her might to stay in Lionel's sight even as he turns away. Even her smile, radiant and wide, carries a hint of desperation, and she may be more heartbreaking when at her most outwardly cheery than she is when that smile fades.

The film's centerpiece occurs about halfway through the film, as Lionel, Joséphine, Jo's sort-of boyfriend Noé (Grégoire Colin) and Gabrielle pile in Gabby's car to head to a concert. It's a stiflingly uncomfortable ride, with cautious looks exchanged all around and Gabrielle breaking the tension only to add even more awkward silence by saying, "We haven't gone out as a family in years." In the middle of a pouring rainstorm, the cab breaks down, and the four of them all look more relieved to be standing outside pushing the Mercedes minivan down the road than to be back in the car.

When they stop in a bar to dry off, something magical happens. The Commodores' "Night Shift" strikes up on the jukebox, and Denis' camera, formerly the same mix of intimate and detached as the characters themselves, suddenly becomes so sensual your toes will curl. She lingers on Gabrielle's back as revealed in her low-cut dress, the look of nervous, budding love on Noé's face and the self-awareness mounting in Lionel's. Not a single word is spoken, but as partners change hands for friendly but revealing dances, the entire structure of the characters' social order rearranges. From that moment, the inevitability of Jo's progression is made plain, while Lionel continues to swim in circles despite seeing his options clearly for the first time.

Fundamentally, 35 Shots of Rum is about the necessity of living life. When Noé invites Gabrielle and Joséphine to his flat, he discovers his 17-year-old cat dead. Without shedding a tear, he grabs the poor thing by the neck and stuffs it into a trash bag along with toys and all the cat's other "effects." The women, speaking for the audience in this situation, simply gaze in horror and ask sensible questions like "A trash bag?" (which would have been exactly the way I phrased that question, too), but Noé's action shows an exaggerated model for moving on from grief. Buried in Noé's rushed attempt to throw everything away is the desire to not be reminded of his cat's death, but he also frees himself by placing the reminders in the bin. As soon as he finishes, he mentions taking a job overseas, which he can now more easily accept because he does not need to worry about his old, sick cat anymore. It's a bit callous, yes, but Jo understands the deeper meaning, and when she gets home she obsessively cleans the flat of her mother's stuff, trying to throw out the shackles that keep her and Lionel chained to their lives. Lionel, of course, intervenes.

Rarely does the film do anything wrong, but two extraneous scenes do drag the more subtle and evocative story. A scene in Jo's class serves only to bring up Denis' usual attention to race and class dynamics, but it's the only moment of the movie to do so, making the academic arguments of the students regarding international development seem even more stilted and rehearsed. Late in the film, Jo and Lionel head to Germany to visit the dead wife's sister, Jo's aunt. Played by Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven, the aunt has a monologue that is not so obvious that it detracts from the visually-oriented mood but makes the mistake of trying to put into words what has already been bountifully expressed through the camera.

But these are fleeting moments, hiccups in an eloquent and insightful look at familiar and familial relationships. Much subtler is the symbolism of Lionel's job, always moving but trapped on the same circuit, that small but key distinction from Gabrielle's own status as a public transporter (and is Lionel's name a reference to those train sets that let us play conductor as kids?). Jo's own, part-time job, a music shop clerk, comes right out of adolescence and is as demonstrative of her trapping herself in young adult years. These are symbols handled with a deft hand, open enough to be guessed on a first viewing but left in the hands of the viewer to work out. Thankfully, it is material like this that defines Denis' film, not the minuscule broad moments.

The film ends with Joséphine set to finally move out into her own life, and to commemorate the event, Lionel downs the titular 35 shots in a personal ceremony that looks as much a wake as it does a wedding reception. The final shot shows Lionel coming home with a new rice cooker, one that appears to be made for one, not two. It's a moving moment, but also a hopeful one. We are spared trite epilogues, left instead to ponder whether the man has processed the various clues sent to him about the state of his life and whether he can alter it before the window of opportunity closes. As with everything else in 35 Shots of Rum, these final moments are as haunting as they are affirming. And compared to the films that sandwich it in Denis' canon, it's proof that she is capable of absolutely anything. Americans tend to outdo each other with spectacle; Denis proves her mettle by stripping all away but the essence, and what is left is overwhelming.


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