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By Voice Film Critics
By Alan Scherstuhl
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Recent American films about families, like last year's Rachel Getting Married and Revolutionary Road, all too often pierce eardrums with unrelenting shrieks of dysfunction and misery. Amid the din, French filmmaker Claire Denis's sublime 35 Shots of Rum stands out all the more for its soothing quiet (one character is even admonished for her yelling), conveying the easy, frequently nonverbal intimacy between a widowed father, Lionel (Alex Descas), and his diligent university-student daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop). An homage to both Yasujiro Ozu's similarly themed Late Spring (1949) and her own mother's relationship with her grandfather, 35 Shots is Denis's warmest, most radiant work, honoring a family of two's extreme closeness while suggesting its potential for suffocation.
Following 2004's magnificent globe-trotting time-space oddity The Intruder, the last of Denis's films to be released stateside, 35 Shots is firmly rooted in place, several scenes unfolding in an apartment building in a rundown section of Paris's 18th arrondissement, home to Lionel and Joséphine; cab driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), an ex of Lionel's who still aches for him; and world traveler Noé (Grégoire Colin), nursing a crush on Joséphine. Dyads align, shift, break, and regroup among the foursome, jealousy simmering.
As in Denis's 1996 brother-sister film, Nénette and Boni, the relationship between Joséphine and Lionel isn't immediately clear. Preparing dinner, Joséphine hears Lionel at the door and smiles; their wordless joy at seeing each other, followed by a tender embrace, at first suggests a romantic relationship, an ambiguity quickly cleared up when Joséphine addresses Lionel as papa. And yet father and daughter live in a near-constant state of domestic bliss, reveling, like the happiest of couples, in the dailiness of their routines: Joséphine cooking rice and sautéeing onions and garlic, Lionel taking a shower after a long shift conducting RER trains, cleaning, doing laundry. Lionel both encourages his daughter to stop doting ("Don't feel I need to be looked after," he says as Joséphine ministers to him after he has had too much to drink) and fears her eventual departure ("We have everything here. Why go looking elsewhere?").
"Elsewhere" will be found at an African café close to home, where Lionel, Joséphine, Gabrielle, and Noé seek refuge after Gabrielle's taxi breaks down en route to a concert ("We haven't gone out as a family in ages," the lady cab driver notes, expanding the notion of kin). In a scene that rightly became legendary following 35 Shots' world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year (one that, even after three viewings, retains all of its erotic power), Noé cuts in on a sweetly dancing father and daughter as the Commodores' "Night Shift" plays, nonsexual filial devotion immediately supplanted by heat and desire—an impeccably choreographed moment during which not a word is uttered. Speech becomes superfluous; Lionel's uneasy gaze as Noé seduces his daughter will be mirrored—and intensified—a few minutes later by Gabrielle as Lionel dances with the café owner. (I haven't seen silent jealousy so indelibly portrayed since Chantal Akerman's 1994 Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels, when the teenage protagonist, dancing with her girl-crush, loses her to a boy during James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World.")
Denis, working with frequent collaborators who might be loosely defined as a "family"—co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau; cinematographer Agnès Godard, who beautifully captures both the endless expanse of railway tracks and the coziness of Lionel and Joséphine's kitchen; soundtrack composers Tindersticks; Descas (in his best performance) and Colin—has made the most adult film of the year. Though Lionel and Joséphine are extremely close, they are also separate, individuated people. Their easy, comfortable life together will need to end—an inevitability that even Lionel recognizes as necessary, no matter how painful. It's a point that no one needs to shout to make.
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