Clair Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum is a small, intimate and beautiful film that gets bigger the more we think about it. While bombastic Hollywood vehicles like Avatar glut movie theater screens across the globe, the French independent film 35 Shots of Rum has played on no more than five screens at a time. Profit-driven movie culture doesn’t promote beautiful films like 35 Shots of Rum, and that is a shame because people are missing out on opportunities to experience rare cinematic gems that both resonate on a deeply human level and deliver some incredibly visionary art. 35 Shots of Rum doesn’t contain brand name stars or dazzling special effects. In fact, the film intentionally takes the spectacle out of cinema. Instead, it delivers a concentrated and intensely human portrait of ordinary people living ordinary lives and the complexity of relationships that humans experience on an everyday level. 35 Shots of Rum takes ordinary life to such a degree of intimacy, closeness and reality that it elevates everyday art to iconic art. It puts a face on the everyday working people we never see in movies, invites us into their lives, and allows us to marvel at the beauty contained in the seemingly ordinary. Unfortunately, as a general rule, the multiplex audience doesn’t necessarily want to see ordinary people, and this is their loss.
Set in the outskirts of Paris, the movie focuses on a father, Lionel, and his daughter, Joséphine, and their relationship with each other and a close circle of friends and neighbors. Through their relationship we experience the quiet tensions, ritualistic bonding, and unspoken emotions that filter through their lives. The movie opens with an incredibly beautiful sequence of a metro train riding the rails through the outskirts of Paris. For nearly ten minutes, we watch as the tracks roll across the screen, as reflections of working class apartment buildings and industrial landscapes reflect in the train windows. This is not the Paris we see in the movies. There is no Eiffel Tower and no Chartres Cathedral, just railroad tracks, and a landscape of the invisible working class of Paris. The empty gray sky criss-crosses with telephone lines and electric poles. Enormous exteriors of apartment buildings glow in geometric brilliance with the colored lights of windows, reminding us of the people living inside of them. As the train continues on its repetitive circular journey, the scene is not ugly. It is mesmerizing. We find beauty in the rhythm of this train’s journey just as the movie will reveal the beauty in the rhythm of the people’s lives it shows us.
When we meet the people in the film, they are also not what we would expect from the romantic cinematic view of Paris. Lionel is an African immigrant, and he and almost all the other characters in the film are of African descent. These characters are not Audrey Tautou and Gerard Depardieu. They are part of a large population of Franco-African working class, people who don’t normally star in movies. We learn that Lionel works as a train conductor and drives the train for the Paris metro, and he lives with his daughter. The mother/wife is absent, but we don’t learn until much later in the film that she was German and that she is dead. The movie centers on two groups of characters, the people work with Lionel at the metro, and the people who live in his apartment building. These people interact and go through life in a quiet rhythm that evokes both intimacy and resignation. While the movie is quietly addressing class and race in Paris, it is never overt. These are people who have inherited the legacy of French colonization in Africa and who are now woven into the Paris landscape as deeply as the Eiffel Tower, even though we never see them in the movies.
This is not to say that 35 Shots of Rum romanticizes the working class or politicizes race. The film’s radical content is contained in the very fact that it resists commentary and resists melodrama. The movie is radical in that it shows a world we don’t often see in the movies, and it refuses to give into easy cinematic conventions though those conventions influence our experience of the film. As the camera drills in on close-ups of the characters’ faces written with sadness, longing, desire, passion, and resignation, it sets us up to expect tragedy and melodrama, to expect that something huge is going to happen. However, most often the visible tension and what seems like a foreboding symbol turns into a moment of quiet tenderness. A father stripping his clothes off and climbing into the shower is nothing more than a man who is tired from work. A young woman stuffing a backpack of clothing into a washing machine is simply performing a daily ritual in a life of small rituals. But Denis compresses these images on the screen so that they are loaded with hints of melodramatic outcome, yet melodrama is always subverted.
One of the main threads in the movie is the intimate relationship between Lionel and his daughter Joséphine. Their entire world revolves around each other. They live together, cook together, eat together. Their lives are compressed into their small apartment, and the energy between them sizzles on the screen by sheer proximity. Frequently, the camera comes so close to their bodies that they become blurs in the foreground while the background of their space – a rice cooker, a radio, a refrigerator, a bookshelf, a bed – becomes the body of their life together. As in the films of Susanne Bier, we are at times set-up to expect a tragic outcome between Joséphine and Lionel, yet those expectations prove false, and instead we witness trust that can be trusted. In one scene, Lionel lies in bed while Joséphine kneels next to him, and they hold hands. The camera again compresses the two characters into the screen, and the bareness of the skin on their hands as their fingers intertwine is loaded so that this tender moment is not without its sense of uncomfortable foreboding (unspoken hints of incest). But it is our history of watching melodramas that mostly writes tension onto this scene.
In the end, all the movie shows us is the incredible love between this daughter and father with no tragic outcome. It inverts our melodramatic expectations.
The movie’s quiet narrative builds to the separation of father and daughter as Joséphine eventually marries her neighbor Noé, but even the expected climatic scene of a wedding is subverted. We never actually see Noé and Jospephine get married, and the entire wedding is represented by Lionel fastening Joséphine’s mother’s necklace around her neck, and then Lionel sitting down to drink down “35 shots of rum” after the wedding. The movie is titled 35 Shots of Rum because Lionel pledged to drink 35 shots at a momentous and significant occasion in his life. This significant event ends up being his daughter’s wedding, yet the film refuses to make the occasion momentous by refusing to show us the wedding. Instead, it focuses on the interior spaces of the characters living through these events. There is so much more humanity and emotion contained in Lionel’s eyes as he drinks his last shot of rum than there would be in the spectacle of a movie wedding.
The movie does have its tragedies and melodramatic moments, notably when Lionel’s friend René commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. We meet René at his retirement party, and as we get to know him we realize that his entire life has been defined by work, by driving the trains of the metro. When his job ends, he feels that his life is meaningless, and he takes his own life by jumping in front of the very train that he spent his life driving. Through our experience of watching movies, we expect a tragic outcome for René. However, when Lionel does find René’s body, it not the kind of death scene we normally see in the movies. It is done so very quietly. We see the still form of René’s body on the tracks, a spot of blood on the rail, and then it’s over. Lionel suppresses his grief, goes back home and eats dinner with Joséphine. René’s death is done with such quiet understated realness that we just accept it as part of this life.
One of the strengths of this film is that it is informed so much by what is not shown and not said. It intentionally withholds information and allows the space of what doesn’t happen to bring beauty and tension into the movie. When we meet the neighbor Noé, we learn that his parents have died, yet we learn nothing of the death. He manifests his grief over their death by constantly traveling and refusing to be connected and rooted. When his 17 year old cat dies and we actually witness a death connected to Noé, he nonchalantly stuffs the dead cat and its toys into a garbage bag, and he denies any emotion in the scene. This withholding of information and emotion reflects the interior space of the two leading male characters – Noé and Lionel. Both men have endured heartbreak and loss, yet both are intensely quiet, all their emotions held inward. As the camera lingers on these two men and we see the grief written into every line on their faces and the depth of their eyes, we realize that all of their emotion is focused inward. Compared to Joséphine, who is so open and vibrant, we see Lionel and Noé as representative of a culture that asks men to suppress their emotions. All of their emotions are inscribed onto Joséphine or locked inside of themselves. The pressure of withholding grief is the great unspoken and unwitnessed character in this movie. It exists and informs every scene, yet it never plays out for us to witness it come to life.
In a way, 35 Shots of Rum is all about interior spaces — the interior spaces of the emotions which never come to surface and the interior spaces of the world the characters occupy. Yet, for all the stillness and subverted emotion in the movie, it is remarkably full of life. This life comes to us from intimate relationships between characters doing everyday things like exchanging gifts at a retirement party, putting on a pair of slippers, or dealing with a broken down car in the rain. Life comes to us from the interior spaces of apartments, bars, and trains. Life bursts from the small things like a bright pink rice cooker, a plate of scrambled eggs, and a thermos full of hot soup, not from enormous melodramatic moments.
The other thing that brings enormously beautiful life to this little movie tis its use of music. Tindersticks performs the original score, and the rhythmic instrumentals drive the rhythm of the characters’ lives just as Lionel drives the train and spends his days tracing the rhythm of the train tracks. The musical score pulses with the movement of the train as we see the windows of apartment buildings hinting at the people inside them, reminding us that the movie itself is a window reflecting human lives. Music also comes to us through interior sources within the movie. The quiet moment when Joséphine turns on the radio in the kitchen and dances while cooking dinner is like a little two-step of freedom. In a scene when neighbor, close friend, and Lionel’s former lover Gabrielle sits the taxi she drives for a living and eats her lunch, the strains of music in the background infuse the simple scene of a woman eating soup during her lunch break with enormous human feeling. The soulful reggae refrain of “I can’t live without you” plays as Gabrielle stares out into the street, and never has eating soup out of a thermos been so poignant, so full of heartache, longing, and beauty.
Likewise, in a scene where the whole group of friends – Lionel, Joséphine, Gabrielle, and Noé – end up dancing in a bar when their car breaks down, music is used to swing us through the complexities of emotion and human connection that pulse inside the relationships of these characters. In one of the most gorgeously orchestrated extended scenes in the movie, the Commodores play “Night Shift” from a jukebox while Lionel dances with Joséphine, Gabrielle, and the stunningly beautiful African woman who owns the bar, showing in a simple dance scene Lionel’s complex relationships to the females in his life, the female (his dead wife) not in his life, and his own emotions. During the same song, Noé dances with Joséphine, and the camera switches back and forth between the barely contained passion between the young man and woman, and the loving and resigned stare of Lionel as he watches his daughter grow up. Never has the duration of a Commodores song been used to such enormous effect.
In fact, nothing in this film is not without its effect. It is like the whole movie is a rhythmic composition, so beautifully and precisely orchestrated. With its attention to detail, to the exterior and interior lives of the characters and their environment, and its tender focus on the everyday lives of working class people, 35 Shots of Rum allows us to experience beauty in the most unlikely of places. In a way it is an ode to the people and the lives that we never see in the movies, yet it never once falls into the trap of easy sentimentality or predictable melodrama. 35 Shots of Rum is a film that proves to us that movies don’t have to be big to be enormous. 35 Shots of Rum will be released on DVD April 20, 2010
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: email@example.com