Beguiling: Claire Denis' "35 Shots of Rum" warms a room.

Soulful "35 Shots of Rum" Gently Intoxicating

Dennis Harvey December 17, 2009

Few directors remain as restless and unpredictable in their choices as Claire Denis has over the last 20 years–qualities rarer still for someone now past 60 who didn’t direct her first feature until age 40. (Before then she was assistant director to a starry range including Wenders, Jarmusch, Costa-Gavras and Dusan Makavejev.)

Her 1988 writing-directing debut first feature Chocolat (no relation to the 2000 Johnny Depp movie) drew on her growing up as a French civil servant’s child in colonial Africa. Immigration and multiculturalism in French-speaking societies has remained one consistent thread.

But otherwise you might struggle to find the connective tissue between such narrative subjects as cockfighting (No Fear, No Die), serial murder (I Can’t Sleep), adolescent angst (Nenette e Boni), military life (Beau Travail), cannibalism (Trouble Every Day), a one-night stand (Friday Night), or an elderly man’s enigmatically predatory nature (The Intruder). Apart, of course, from their astute character observation and coolly arms-length, never flashy directorial gaze, which drain any whiff of sensationalism or sentimentality.

One could seldom call her vision a warm one–nor exactly cold, more in the realm of judicious neutrality. But warmth is very much the quality radiating from 35 Shots of Rum, which opens in San Francisco this Friday. It’s a movie that, like so many of Denis’, is stylistically low-key but assured, avoids melodrama in favor of accumulating telling detail, and has its share of character/narrative ambiguities. But seldom before has she focused before on a set of characters quite so sympathetically (if sometimes painfully) bonded together.

It’s a current cliche of mainstream U.S. cinema, in particular, to smarmily affirm Family Values amidst crass humor or destruction. (For examples, look no further than Old Dogs or 2012 at your nearest multiplex.) 35 Shots is that rare film which vividly conveys the contentment of happy familial closeness without resorting to stereotypes or audience manipulation. And it doesn’t get there by negotiating the now-customary minefield of extended-family dysfunction, either. These people may have problems and be imperfect, but there’s never a doubt their love for one another runs deep and true.

The people in question being Lionel (Alex Descas) and Josephine (Mati Diop). He’s an African-emigre train conductor nearing retirement, she his college-attending only child (born to a white wife/mother whose long-ago absence is only partly explained by a late road trip to Germany).

They live a comfortable-enough life in a working-class suburban Paris apartment block also inhabited by Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) and Noe (Gregoire Colin). The former is a zesty taxi driver who apparently was once Lionel’s lover, and played substitute mother to Jo. Both are roles she’d like to revisit and/or strengthen. Handsome, broody, long-orphaned Noe has kept his parents’ penthouse-like flat, but considers (or threatens?) moving abroad. That’s clearly because he’s in love with Josephine, who prefers keeping their relationship on a sibling level.

Both father and daughter realize they’ll eventually have to move on from what’s a borderline overdependent (though not incestuously weird) kind of married domesticity. But neither are willing to relinquish it, just yet. Circumstances force some overdue shifts when this quartet, tensely driving to a concert, get car-stalled and stranded at a cafe where four successive couples’ slow dancing delivers an intoxicating amount of wordless information about each participant’s mindset.

35 Shots of Rum still has miles to go. But after that stretch, any further elaboration on already beautifully defined character dynamics is just icing on a buttery bittersweet cake.

Yuletide is normally a time for noisy celebration and effort (or depression over their lack). But if you’re up for a seasonal gift of the quietly soul-warming type, you could scarcely do better. Seriously: Anyone in the market for a post-family-mega-meal, feel-good movie excursion, this is your ticket. Allowing that all attendees are fairly grown-up in attitude (kids of any age will be bored) and un-allergic to subtitles, they’ll likely be utterly beguiled.