PRINT September 2009


Claire Denis

CLAIRE DENIS’S ACHINGLY TENDER, bittersweet 35 Shots of Rum describes a father-daughter relationship that’s as good as they get. Lionel (Alex Descas), a widower, has lived alone with his daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop), for most of her life. A railroad engineer, he drives commuter trains between Paris and the suburbs. She is a university student. Their apartment, in a multicultural working-class district, is sparsely furnished but fully lived in. After the opening six-minute montage of trains—appropriate since the film is about a rite of passage, as well as the daily routines and rituals that keep one from being overwhelmed by the transience of all things—Lionel and Joséphine arrive home separately. She starts dinner and greets him at the door with a kiss; he hugs her; she brings him his slippers and goes back to preparing the food as he takes a shower. They eat at a small table in the kitchen, serving each other. Denis gives us five full minutes to decipher from their behavior and attitude what their relationship is. They could be lovers, although a certain modesty suggests otherwise. We might also notice how protective they seem of each other’s feelings and the care they take to treat each other as equals. It’s not until Jo says, “Thank you, Papa,” that we can put a name to their intimacy.

Movies about fathers and daughters in which the relationship isn’t dysfunctional and the daughter is more than a pawn in the father’s journey to self-realization are rare in any culture. French movies in which the leading characters, as in 35 Shots, are black but don’t live in the banlieues and aren’t involved in lives of crime as perps or victims are even more anomalous. Denis has remarked that part of the inspiration for 35 Shots was seeing Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) with her mother, who was tremendously moved by the film’s father-daughter dyad and once confessed to Denis that, despite her long marriage, her father (the glamorous Brazilian grandfather the director adored) had been the most important man in her life. 35 Shots is more tribute than remake, but Denis’s borrowings from Late Spring are significant: an elliptical narrative structured by the repetitions of domestic and work routines; a father who pushes his daughter out of the nest by pretending he’s less dependent on her love than he actually is; a trip that father and daughter take together just before her marriage, which crystallizes the pleasure they take in their attachment and the pain of their impending separation; and a musical score that at first seems more appropriate to a lightweight romantic comedy than to the tangles of unspoken feelings that lie just beneath the surface of both films.

I had my doubts about the Tindersticks score for 35 Shots until I realized that Denis, like Ozu, makes movies to show how remarkable ordinary human beings are, and that it is precisely this sense of the ordinary as remarkable that is absent from the mainstream movies of which the score is a reminder. Like the handheld, nearly invisible camera work by Denis’s longtime cinematographer, Agnès Godard, the entire film feels as natural as breathing. And yet it might also be described as a poem written in the language of the hands, eyes, and, yes, sometimes the backs of four performers: Descas, the most magnetic and grounded actor in world cinema; Diop, a radiant young woman whose beauty is unspoiled by narcissism, perhaps because she’s an aspiring director rather than an actor; Grégoire Colin—like Descas, an axiom of Denis’s films—as Noé, the brooding upstairs neighbor, so besotted with Jo that he can barely look at her; and Nicole Dogué as Gabrielle, another neighbor, permanently in pursuit of Lionel, who long ago rejected her. In the electrifying set piece that occurs midway through the second act of what is actually, although not obviously, a classical three-act drama (the script is by Denis and her usual writing partner, Jean-Pol Fargeau), these four characters take refuge from rain in a tiny African restaurant just after closing time. The narrow space between the bar and the four or five tables is barely sufficient for one couple to dance, but, with the camera as close and aware of their faces and bodies as any partner could be, dance they do. First, Lionel takes Gabrielle, who, mistakenly believing he is hers again, happily relinquishes him to Jo. As father and daughter sway together, arms around each other’s neck, Noé, emboldened by a few stiff drinks, cuts in. The softly sinuous “Siboney” is replaced by the more insistent R&B beat of the Commodores’ “Nightshift” (“You found another home / I know you’re not alone / On the nightshift”). As Lionel watches, Noé kisses Jo passionately. Jo breaks away confused and angry, but the ritual passing of the daughter from father to husband has been accomplished—a foretoken of the wedding the film will later elide (just as in Late Spring). And Lionel, who fully understands what has taken place, is free to take solace in the arms of the luscious proprietor of the restaurant: A close-up of her lips inches from his cheek is the one of the sexiest images in all of Denis’s movies. We couldn’t have fully comprehended the willfully chaste love between father and daughter without the contrast of this blatant, impulsive expression of sexual desire. And besides, every good father deserves a night on the town.

35 Shots of Rum opens at Film Forum in New York on September 16.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.