35 Shots of Rum: Claire Denis and her cinema of touch
35 Shots of Rum is the latest feature from filmmaker Claire Denis, the French sensualist who uses her directorial point-of-view to connect the eye to the soul. In films such as Chocolate, Beau Travail, Friday Night, and The Intruder, she does not so much tell stories as elucidate moods, environments, neighborhoods, relationships, and moments in time.In her films feelings take the place of words. An exchange of glances says more than a page of dialogue, an expression is a climax. Hers is a cinema of looks, of longing, of touch; a cinema of hands being held, of caresses. It is a cinema of common bonds between people, the intersections of their lives. Hallways, cafes, trains, cars, a modern street or apartment—the plain architecture of the middle class—form the backdrops of her sets. The quotidian gesture, such as the setting of a table or the removing of a jacket, counts as an action scene. In 35 Shots of Rum, as in all of her movies, she denies the viewer the satisfaction of a dramatic arc for something more impressionistic, more satisfyingly real. She is not seeking the grit of the documentary, but the texture of life in flux.
The movie is set on the outskirts of modern-day Paris. A father and his grown daughter share an apartment. She is a college student, he is a train conductor. Their closest friends are the young man and the lady cab driver that also live in the building, and the father’s fellow train employees. The film develops slowly and almost wordlessly as we are quietly immersed in the ordinary rituals of their lives. Dinners shared standing up, showers taken at the end of a workday, concerns over a cat being fed. But there are barely perceived ruptures in the day-to-day: another conductor unhappily retires, the cab driver displays an unrequited love for the father, the young man has an eye for the daughter. Later in the film, we discover the father and daughter’s back-story regarding her mother. The movie ends too soon and yet it never ends, as we know that these lives will intertwine forever.
Denis prefers subtlety to contrivance. So much of what we learn in this film comes to us elliptically, in whispers or by inference. What is clear is that the daughter loves her father dearly but he knows their existence can’t continue. She must find her own life. As the film moves toward its bittersweet, abrupt conclusion, you realize that Denis has made a movie about leaving.
This leaving is also evident in the fact that nearly every character is black or of mixed-race. This is the immigrant population of Europe, and the children of immigrants. A 21st century Europe, with the hopes and dreams of generations, absorbed into the fabric of daily life. Denis offers no political commentary on this obvious fact. In her cinema, what is is what is. We are only asked to watch, to listen, to feel.