Thursday, December 5, 2013

35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums)

35 SHOTS OF RUM (35 Rhums)           A            
France Germany  (100 mi)  2008  d:  Claire Denis         Official site

We could stay like this forever.           —Joséphine (Mati Diop)

An affectionate and affirming work.  Most great works of literature and cinema seem to be tragedies that continually explore a dark edge of the human soul.  What’s so unique about this film is the life affirming warmth expressed from the outset and the positive feeling of optimism, where love is explored with an amazing tenderness and poetic grace.  The daughter of a civil servant, Denis spent much of her childhood in different African countries before returning to France where she assisted other directors such as Dušan Makavejev, Costa-Gavras, Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch before directing her first feature at the age of 40, so like Toni Morrison in literature, she brings an unconventional maturity into her works.  She's one of the unsung filmmakers of our era, a director who moves between an experimental, avant garde style with slight to nonexisting narratives to more conventional narratives fairly easily, usually focusing on the personal lives of marginalized working class characters whose very ordinariness separates them from mainstream movie viewing.  This film is a wonderful expository essay on the nature of living, shown from the outset as a series of passing trains, sometimes meeting, sometimes simply traveling in opposite directions, but always running on the same track.  In what appears to be an Ozu homage of life in transition, the train montage 35 Rhums.Tindersticks. Train Montage. YouTube (3:43) in the opening set to the music by Tindersticks is a clear sign of moving from one place to another, where nothing remains static, where lives are in constant motion.  Alex Descas is Lionel (as in the model trains), a train conductor whose vantage point from the lead car we follow from time to time, a man of few words, but always serious and direct, even as he wordlessly steers his train.  He and his fellow workers meet to celebrate the retirement of one of Lionel’s old friends, Réne (Julieth Mars Toussaint), a man who plainly feels uncomfortable about his impending future and the loss of his working friendships.  The easygoing nature of this mostly black working class environment is conveyed in the sharing of drinks, where it’s customary at retirements to swig down shots of rum.   

Without revealing any background story, Lionel is a widower living in close quarters with his beautiful daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), a student who also works nights in a record store, where one of their special moments together is her dad picking her up on his motorbike after work, or enjoying a home cooked meal together where their intimacy is beautifully expressed in their eyes as well as their accustomed routines.  Added to this triangle are two neighbors, Noé (Grégoire Colin), who openly shows his affection for Joséphine, and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), equally enthralled with her father, an old flame of Lionel’s who still carries a torch while assuming the surrogate role of step-mother.  Without ever actually telling the story, instead it unravels in lyrical images detailing the rhythms of life, beautifully shot by Agnès Godard who captures gestures, facial expressions, body language, or silent actions showing the distances between people, but rarely in speech.  The film evolves through various vignettes beautifully edited together and in the near perfect music selections by Tindersticks, which includes Basehead’s “Home” ( (4:30) which plays in the music store, or Sophia George’s “Can’t Live Without You” Sophia George- Can't live without you- 198X - YouTube (4:01), a reggae song that plays in the car on the way to a concert.  But the scene of the film is after their car breaks down in the rain and they ask the proprietor of a small restaurant and bar to stay open after closing hours, where we hear the smooth musical refrains from Ralph Thamar’s “Siboney” and the Commodores “Nightshift” 35 Shots of Rum - Dance Scene.avi YouTube (5:56), where a nice soulful groove takes a wrong turn somewhere, prompted by the music and the open expression of intimacy, where jealousy and body language reveal it all, leaving feelings abandoned and hurt, turning the night sour.  The subtleties of this scene typify the fragility of relationships, which seem so solid at one moment, only to discover the moment lasts just an instant.   

Despite the various stops along the way, this is really a different kind of love story and is largely a father and daughter journey, as they take a camper to Germany to visit Joséphine’s aunt, who is none other than Ingrid Caven, a scene stealer from Fassbinder films of old, like MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN (1975), where they had to tag on three different endings to that film, but she’s in fine form here as well, allowed to wallow in her eccentricities in an extended scene much like Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BLVD. (1950).  But this visit also reveals some of the most tender images in the film as well, the two of them visiting her mother’s grave, sleeping under the stars overlooking the sea, observing a strange procession of children carrying lanterns at night, all understated expressions of various stages of life poetically rendered with the most detached reverence.  But the ultimate gift a loving father can give his daughter is setting her free, allowing her to move on with her life, which includes a moment unlike any other in their lifetimes, which is shown with exquisite grace and an economy of means, as the film just briefly touches on what the future holds.  Denis really gets inside the lives of her characters and is one of the more distinctive filmmakers on the planet.  She is a constant reminder that cinema is still an art form, a contemplative study of humanity observing the way we treat one another through rhythm and texture, music, image, and tone.  The film couldn’t be more effortless, yet it paints a contemporary face on the modern world by simply focusing on the lives of a few people living in it, all done with an undeniable love and lyrical charm. 

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