Still waters run deep in Claire Denis' deceptively mellow "35 Shots of Rum" (2009).
Denis focuses her eye and ear on the daily rhythms of life for four apartment dwellers in a Parisian housing project. A train conductor named (what else?) Lionel (Alex Descas) lives with his adult daughter Josephine (newcomer Mati Diop) in an apartment still haunted by the loss of his wife many years ago. They are so familiar with each other's rituals that they live together almost like husband and wife. Indeed some viewers might initially mistake them for a married couple, but their overt affection is inflected by a sense of impending loss. Josephine says that she wants to live like this forever. So would Lionel, but father knows best and he lovingly tries to push her out of the nest while still reflexively clinging to the comfortable life they've known for so long.
The father and daughter form the core of an unlikely family unit completed by two neighbors. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) has carried a torch for Lionel for years, while a young neighbor, Noé (Grégoire Colin) is in love with Josephine. With occasional reticence, Josephine reciprocates Noé's feelings. Lionel negotiates a more treacherous path, gently rebuffing Gabrielle's insistent overtures while still keeping her as a valued friend.
From this simple web of relationships, Denis spins an intricate story in which, on the surface, not too much happens. In the film's central sequence, a stalled car strands the four of them on their way to a concert. A quick change of plans finds them in a Caribbean restaurant shortly after hours. They eat and then they dance. Cutting back and forth between the dancers and the observers, Denis taps a wellspring of emotion with the subtlest glances and gestures. First, Lionel and Gabrielle dance. Josephine watches and smiles sweetly. Tellingly, Lionel smiles back because his eyes are on his daughter the whole time. Gabrielle remains unaware as her eyes are closed and her head buried blissfully in Lionel's shoulder.
Next Lionel dances with his daughter, propping her up almost as if she's standing on his feet like she surely did as a little girl. Then Noé cuts in. In an inspired piece of staging, Denis composes the shot so that Lionel turns to the camera, initially eclipsing Noé from sight then moving across the frame to clear the way for the young couple as the Commodore's "Night Watch" plays on the stereo. But perhaps dad isn't completely at ease with the new situation. When we see Lionel watching them dance, his look is wary, even a bit menacing, the brooding look Descas specializes in. Noé could change everything, so the little bastard better watch out.
An even more ambiguous moment occurs soon after. Lionel makes a bold move, grabbing the restaurant owner's hand and spinning her onto the dance floor. Denis holds on them for a long time until she finally cuts to that painful shot we all know is coming: Gabrielle, badly wounded. Does Lionel do this out of cruelty to drive home the point to Gabrielle that they are not and will never again be a couple? His interest in the owner is genuine (he doesn't return home until early the next morning) but he knows full well how much it will hurt and even humiliate Gabrielle. Perhaps the gentle rhythms of this masterful scene are a cover for something far more turbulent.
There are other flare-ups in the film, but they are quickly extinguished because the four of them have all decided that preservation of the status quo is paramount. When Noé threatens to leave, Josephine takes drastic measures. The family, oddly configured as it may be, is sacrosanct. Noé has to stay. Gabrielle has to keep pining. Lionel has to remain the aloof but kind observer. They're all taking their little stabs at happiness while they can and, for now and the foreseeable future, that happiness means being together. Even when it hurts.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer from the original HD source material. Cinema Guild has done an excellent job here. The image quality is sharp and the colors are rich. Take a look at the outdoor scene near the end for an example of how surprisingly detailed the image can be: the sun on the leaves is quite vibrant. Denis likes to shoot close-ups with the background out-of-focus and the characters' faces stand out very sharply, vital to a film composed largely of faces.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The film is packed with music. Characters are frequently listening to songs, and the soundtrack by the Tindersticks is pervasive and evocative. The mix preserves the music quite well – "Nightshift" sounds great – and the ambient sound is captured nicely too. Optional English subtitles support the audio.
"Claire Denis in Conversation" is a live recording of Denis' appearance at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio in 2004 where a month-long retrospective of her films was shown. Professor Judith Mayne conducts an extensive interview with Denis on stage that covers all of her films up to "Friday Night" (2002). Total running time 70 minutes.
Also included is an interview (21 min.) conducted by Jonathan Romney for "Cinémoi" about "35 Shots." It's an interesting view as Denis seems slightly impatient with some of Romney's questions and redirects the conversation a few times.
A Production Gallery (still photos) and trailer for other Cinema Guild films are also provided.
The four-page fold-out booklet features an essay by "Film Quarterly" editor Rob White.
"35 Shots of Rum" is a treat for the senses, an audiovisual experience that seduces the viewer from the opening shots of a train rolling down sinuous tracks. The film's placid, minimalist façade masks a complex story of four intertwining, interdependent relationships. Denis was inspired by Ozu's "Late Spring" which probably explains the trains (Ozu = trains in the simplified cinephile lexicon) though the resemblance is more in content than in style. Great music, great actors (Ingrid Caven, the former Mrs. Fassbinder, also appears) and an economy of style that shames most directors. What more do you need?
This is a fine presentation by Cinema Guild both in terms of video and audio quality and the interviews with Denis are lengthy and substantive. Strongly recommended.