When I think about Paris, I normally don’t think about subways. My Paris has sumptuous architecture, great restaurants, high fashion and intoxicating romance. And yet the Paris metro system is indeed the visual metaphor for the intersecting lives of five Parisians in Claire Denis’s latest award-winning film, 35 SHOTS OF RUM. While I missed seeing the city of lights in all its glory, those subway tracks had a mesmerizing effect and had me thinking about life choices and the potential dangers of changing course. There’s romance too, but it’s the kind of romance that causes unspoken internal stress and temporary immobility.
As the story unfolds, we are witness to a critical turning point in the intimate relationship between a father and daughter. As each independently contemplates an inevitable separation (the daughter is a pretty college student with more than one suitor), a melancholy sadness is beginning to hover over both of them. In a relationship where a warm familial embrace can chase away the blues in an instant, the prospect of independence is generating a fair amount of anxiety.
The film’s setting is a middle-class suburb of Paris where the father, Lionel (beautifully played by Alex Descas), works as a train conductor and his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) is studying the politics of global economies. In the way Denis (BEAU TRAVAIL, CHOCOLAT) quietly captures the ordinary routines of their life together we begin to understand the extraordinary bond that exists between them. The magical quality of the film is found in how well we come to understand the characters despite minimal dialogue and not much narrative. As Josephine prepares dinner she can discern, simply from the familiarity of sounds that Lionel makes when he comes home from work, that everything in their world is just as it should be.
Or is it? Josephine’s feelings for a handsome neighbor, Noe (Gregoire Colin), appear inhibited by her feelings of love and responsibility for Lionel, a widower. At the same time, Lionel gives Josephine conflicting messages about his independence and resilience. Lionel is equally ambivalent about the advances of a former lover, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), also a neighbor. In fact, it occurred to me that Lionel might view Gabrielle’s advances as a threat to his relationship with Josephine. Any therapist would have a field day here.
In figuring out the best five-minute clip to share with you, I felt it had to be a moment that showcases Denis’s ability to communicate multiple messages where no words are spoken. In one of the more beautifully choreographed sequences of the movie, Lionel, Josephine, Noe and Gabrielle seek shelter at a café when their car breaks down in a torrential rainstorm. In the following clip, Denis reveals the conflicting desires of each character with the skillful economy of furtive glances and quicksilver expressions of emotion:
The theme of inevitable change, and the wariness and pain that can accompany it, is depicted more directly in another intersecting story-- the retirement of one of Lionel’s colleagues, Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly). A celebration of Ruben’s retirement is really the first step in his downward spiral that finds him incapable of establishing an adequate replacement for work and the friendship of colleagues. Like Lionel, Ruben doesn’t say much but we understand from his sad, hooded eyes and body fatigue that he is confronting a bleak future.
Ruben’s story gave me chills. How often do we see retirement as a celebration when, in fact, the loss of purpose and social interaction is probably a perfect formula for depression? (Note: Another recent acquisition by Cinemondo, the brilliant film DAYS AND CLOUDS, deals with the trauma of job loss and its devastating consequences as experienced by an upper-middle-class couple in Genoa. Highly recommended!).
While the future for Lionel and Josephine is hardly as bleak as Ruben’s, Lionel does conclude that when their changed circumstances are at hand, it is finally time to have those 35 shots of rum. When it happens, my impulse was to simply say: Cheers!