35 Shots of Rum (Cinema Guild, NR)

 35 Shots of Rum is an excellent small film, and I mean “small” in the nicest way.


I missed 35 Shots of Rum when it was here as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival only to kick myself, metaphorically speaking, when it started showing up on other critics’ top ten lists for 2009. Still, we critics can be as faddish as the next person, so I’m gratified that 35 Shots of Rum is back in town so I could check it out for myself.
I’m glad I did. 35 Shots of Rum is an excellent small film, and I mean “small” in the nicest way, as a character-based story told at a human scale by a director (Claire Denis, who also co-wrote the script) who lets the story develop at an unhurried pace and trusts her audience enough to not spell out every last detail of the story. All the actors are excellent, and nowhere is this better displayed than in their ability to communicate more through facial expressions and the exchange of glances than could ever be written in dialogue. Mercifully, no one talks about their feelings yet we understand perfectly what they are thinking and how they feel.
Lionel (Alex Descas) is a widower who lives with his college-student daughter Josephine (newcomer Mati Diop) and works as a motorman on the Metro. Father and daughter have settled into a comfortable existence but the obvious loneliness of a recently retired colleague (Mars Toussaint) shakes Lionel into the realization that it might be time for both him and Josephine to form new relationships.
Both have suitors of a sort, conveniently located in the same apartment building. Cab driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) was once an item with Lionel and would like to get back with him, while Noe (Gregoire Colin, who played the pretender in Olivier, Olivier so many years ago) is something of a rolling stone but is clearly attracted to Josephine. But everyone is so reserved and reticent that you have to wonder if anyone will ever make a move or if they’ll simply be content to go on with their familiar routines.
There’s not much of a plot in 35 Shots of Rum; Denis spend most of her time showing us the characters going about their ordinary, everyday lives. Josephine debates world politics in her university classes, Lionel drives his train and Gabrielle her cab, a mix-up results in two rice cookers at home. The characters are so comfortable with each other that we almost feel like members of the family, or perhaps occupants of a neighboring apartment.
Did I mention that most of the characters in this film are of African descent? No issue is made of their race; they are simply citizens of contemporary, multicultural Paris going about their lives and dealing with the same kind of personal concerns that nearly everyone faces at some point in their lives.
High production values also make 35 Shots of Rum a pleasure to watch. Cinematographer Agnès Godard captures the beauty of the most ordinary Parisian scenes (who knew that long shots of Metro tracks could look so appealing?) as well as the coziness of the characters’ homes. An attractive score by Tindersticks enhances the film’s moods, while Guy Lecorne’s editing captures just the right pacing. It all adds up to a warm, sensitive film which reminds you that sometimes a filmmaker can be most profound when she leaves some things unsaid. | Sarah Boslaugh

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