The story of a codependent father-and-daughter relationship pays tribute to the work of Yasujirō Ozu’ and Denis' own mother.
omfort lives beneath words in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum. It manifests as a physical and spiritual ease evinced in the slipping of feet into well-worn slippers, the thrum of a washing machine, the taste of perfectly-prepared white rice, the modesty of a small table set for two.
Denis has made more artistically ambitious films than this 2008 drama—regarded, like Friday Night (2002) before it and Let the Sunshine In (2017) after it, as a “minor work”—but seldom has she shared a more personal creation with audiences. The film centers upon the immovable bond between Lionel (Alex Descas), a middle-aged train conductor, and his adult daughter Josephine (Mati Diop), an anthropology student, who share an apartment in northern Paris. But Josephine disrupts their codependent coziness when she finds herself increasingly drawn to their raffish upstairs neighbor Noe (Grégoire Colin). Though he shows little fondness for Noe, Lionel begins to wonder if he is hindering Josephine’s future prospects by relying on her as a de facto helpmate. “When I get dark thoughts, I think of my daughter,” Lionel confides at one point.
35 Shots of Rum was borne of Denis’ wish to make a movie for and about her mother, whose relationship to her own father resembled the one depicted here and in Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), another film about the upheaval of a devoted father-daughter relationship. In a 2009 interview with Adam Nayman for Reverse Shot, Denis described the experience of taking her mother to an Ozu retrospective to see his mid-career masterpiece: “She thought it was beautiful—she said ‘I didn’t know you could make a film with such a simple story.’ So I made up my mind. I wanted to make that film for her.”
Crafted with Denis’ longtime writing partner Jean-Pol Fargeau as an explicit homage to Ozu’s film, 35 Shots of Rum updates and embeds its predecessor’s central conflict—between a father’s obedience to societal pressures and a daughter’s aversion to change—in the gestures, objects, and sensations that define Denis’ visual artistry. She requires no history-detailing exposition to convince us of the attachment between father and daughter; it lies in the silences that the pair hold and inhabit, the pockets of quiet that make the words they do share all the more meaningful. “Just feel free,” Lionel urges Josephine in one scene, a demand easier said than done, but also one for which Josephine cannot discern an imperative. As Lionel and Josephine slowly unbraid their interwoven way of life, Diop’s artifice-free performance hinges on just how disorienting it can be to finally start living for oneself after having lived so long for someone else.
Personal resonance lies in this particular assemblage of actors. Colin has been a shape-shifting presence in so many of Denis’ filmography, which serves as a parallel chronicle of the actor’s aging. The same can be said of Descas, for whom Denis specifically wrote the role of Lionel. Possessing one of the most naturally transfixing faces in cinema, Descas can hold our hearts with a subdued stare and a whispered endearment. (“I think that Alex Descas always has a past [on screen],” Denis has said of her leading man. “It’s like he brings an inside story to his characters.”) Additionally, in the years since 35 Shots of Rum’s release, Diop has proven herself a formidable filmmaker in her own right, her practice inspired and informed by the director who cast her in her breakout role.
In collaboration with these magnetic actors, as well as her indispensable cinematographer Agnès Godard and editor Guy Lecorne (in the first of his seven films with the director), Denis creates tactile, golden-hued images that illustrate how it feels to experience the contours of one’s life loosen and expand. Other figures outside Lionel and Josephine’s domestic cocoon frequently vie for entry. Noe—with his chaotic comings-and-goings and aptly mid-aughts wardrobe of track pants, button-downs, and gold chains—is a parent’s nightmare of a suitor and a harbinger of loneliness for the leery Lionel. But 35 Shots of Rum stretches to include a tragic subplot involving Lionel’s coworker René (Julieth Mars), who’s bereft of a reason to live upon his reluctant retirement, and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), Lionel’s patient and uniquely pitiful sometimes-girlfriend, who resides in the same apartment complex and hangs on to the possibility that Lionel will reciprocate her full and unwavering love.
The tensions between Lionel and Josephine, Josephine and Noe, and Lionel and Gabrielle collide in one of the great sequences in Denis’ entire filmography. Set on a miserably rainy night and primarily scored to the Commodores’ blissful, bittersweet post-Lionel Richie hit “Nightshift,” the aches and attractions of the central quartet reach a boiling point in one of the director’s trademark dance scenes. The walls of an after-hours restaurant are transformed into a cauldron of desire that takes the form of clandestine glances, an unloosened bun, the light swaying of hips and the shifting of limbs, and a retreat from a deep, destined kiss.
In 35 Shots of Rum, Denis refines her cinema of stolen moments, most poignantly in a late-film excursion to the German city of Lübeck, where Lionel and Josephine visit the final resting place of her mother. As father and daughter lay side by side, huddled under blankets on a windy beach at night, Josephine interrupts Lionel’s idle humming to tell him, “We could live like this forever.” Lionel says nothing, knowing, as Denis does, that they cannot. In Denis’ wise, warm-blooded film, the greatest gift a parent can give their progeny is the bravery to make their own decisions and inevitable mistakes. In the film’s final moments, Lionel imparts another gift to his daughter. As the camera gazes at the nape of Josephine’s neck, he fastens her mother’s necklace around it, a delicate reminder that we always carry those we love, those we miss, and those whose life begat our own.
35 Shots of Rum is available to stream on MUBI and Topic.
Matthew Eng is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Review of Books, MUBI Notebook, and Reverse Shot, among other publications.