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35 Shots of Rum
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by Jay Seaver

"Lionel, his train, and his daughter."
4 stars

I had an odd experience reading the description in the theater's program for "35 Shots" (that's the subtitle that appeared on the print; the poster adds "of Rum", probably a better translation of French title "35 rhums") after viewing the movie. I wouldn't so much say it was inaccurate, even though it didn't really match what I saw. Claire Denis expects the audience to fill in many blanks.

So, let us start with the bare facts. Lionel (Alex Descas) drives a train in the Paris Metro; his friend and co-worker, René (Julieth Mars Toussaint) is retiring. Lionel lives in an apartment with his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop). Also living in the same building are Noé (Grégoire Colin) - Lionel and Joséphine look in on his cat during his frequent overseas trips - and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), a taxicab driver who is friends with all of them. Jo has recently caught the eye of Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly), a fellow student at her University.

All, other than Noé, are black, although that does not appear to be significant. Or is it? Here, we must start to piece together interpretations, based on what we see of the characters, as Denis is very seldom going to have the characters simply come out and state how they feel about each other, or fully articulate their history. They say enough to indicate that there is plenty of history in some instances, and most audience members will extrapolate a roughly similar chain of events. You have to pay attention, is all.

Which can, admittedly, be tricky. Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau do not overburden the film with a great deal of plot or dialogue. This is the sort of film that spends a great deal of time on following its characters as they go about everyday tasks: Lionel quietly drives his train, or he and Joséphine prepare dinner. Noé talks in vague terms about a new job. The two scenes that serve as the film's turning point are extremely low key - a scene in a bar is full of people pointedly not talking to each other, while the next finishes with a reaction to something that has happened off-screen. As someone who tends to like more active movies, I fully sympathize with anybody who loses patience here.

Fortunately, star Alex Descas is excellent at not saying anything. There is something occasionally rather cold about his Lionel; especially in his dealings with Gabrielle, he can seem quietly cruel. But there's also a warmth in his scenes with Mati Diop that rings very true - not demonstrative all the time, and they can get angry at each other, but something about his rugged, worn face lightens.

Diop is a good complement for him in that regard; though she mirrors some of Lionel's somewhat defensive attitude, Joséphine seems a bit more comfortable with the world around her, and also slips into the position of being daddy's girl without being immature or selfish. It's easy to imagine a background in which Lionel is an immigrant who will never be as at-home in Paris as his daughter. Dogué and Colin, as well as Toussaint and Folly, play characters that we know mainly through their relationships to Lionel and Joséphine, but make them much more complete than plot devices.

Denis and company bring them together in interesting ways. With the dialogue relatively low, the environments play an important part. Compare the tidy apartment Lionel and Joséphine share to that of Noé, for example. Examine the plentiful shots of railroad tracks; on the one hand, they indicate constraints, but the complexity of the network suggests the opposite. Note how Agnès Godard's camera lingers over a location late in the film, how different it is from where we've spent most of our time.

What does all this mean? That's up to the audience, to a certain extent - this is the sort of film where how much you take from it is tied to what you bring and how much effort you make. I've got my ideas, and they appear to be different from those of the person who wrote the program. But that's okay; it makes the film an enjoyable one to talk about.

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originally posted: 11/05/09 12:45:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/18/08 denny a very different positve view of paris suburbs 4 stars
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  16-Sep-2009 (NR)
  DVD: 20-Apr-2010



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