Claire Denis has made a career out of making films about families. Yet to look at the French filmmaker's oeuvre, you would never know it. Denis has turned her camera toward the most unconventional of family units. Over the years we have been privy to the contemplative colonialism of childhood memories in Chocolat, the estranged brother/sister combo of Nenette & Boni, the vampiricly troubled couples of Trouble Every Day, even the glistening homoerotic soldiers of the filmmaker's greatest and most poetic effort, Beau Travail. Here Ms. Denis goes a bit more conventional (just a bit), but no less powerful.
Telling the story of an African immigrant father and daughter (though, much like Nenette & Boni, you are not first sure of what kind of relationship this actually is) 35 Shots of Rum is a multilayered thesis on family, both conventional and unconventional in the form of the father's ex-girlfriend and the daughter's potential new boyfriend, but never does it delve into the overused typical emotional diatribes so prevalent in the genre. We never get to see or hear the cathartic breakdowns or the explosive rants seen and heard in so many other family cinema pieces. This is a film about family on the edge of despair, loneliness, disaster even but it is also a film with a quiet streak to it. Almost as if it will be scolded if it stands up for itself. Reprimanded if it raises its hurt voice in protest. There is even one moment when a character does yell and is scolded for such behaviour. This is a film more in the mold of recent neo-neorealist works such as Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Goodbye Solo rather than in the vein of recent shout match family dramas such as A Christmas Tale or Rachel Getting Married.
Not that one approach is better than the other - all the films mentioned above rest among my favourites of recent years - but Denis' film is decidedly low in tone while managing to be quite high in passion. Her approach is that of an observer - a voyeur if you will. Much like her Friday Night, where we are cast as voyeurs in the sweetly decedent motel room longings of the film's two protagonists, 35 Shots of Rum is again the viewer watching as mere spectator upon the never revealed inner lives of the characters. We are never let in on everything like many films and filmmakers allow, or sometimes force us, to do. Instead we are voyeurs watching through windows and doorways and car windshields. We are never allowed to delve into these peoples' lives but instead must merely observe their quiet, nearly uneventful lives. Yet there hums throughout the film, a strangely disquieting potential disturbance that at any moment could rip this precipice-dangling family unit to virtual shreds. This underlying potentiality makes this low key story of family tingle with troubling anxiety. This is what makes Denis' latest film work on so many different levels at once.
Acted with the same disquieting charm as Denis directs with, Denis regular Alex Descas (also seen in non-Denis films such as The Limits of Control and Boarding Gate) as the father Lionel and Mati Diop (niece of Senegalese filmmaking legend Djibril Diop Mambéty) making her screen debut as the daughter Josephine, never force their way into the story but rather flow along with it in the most casual manner. In fact, if nothing else, 35 Shots of Rum is a work of the most casual kind of storytelling. These subtly nuanced performances - along with costars Nicole Dogue and Gregoire Colin - are more of what makes this film works so evenly yet so underlyingly anxiously. Once acting and directing are put together in this apprehensive way, uncertainty begins gnawing at every word and every scene and every moment. There is one scene set in a restaurant after this family of sorts is stranded in the rain that is almost to anxiously designed to even watch without being on the proverbial edge of your theater seat. In the end, 35 Shots of Rum may not have the overall lusciousness of a film like Beau Travail - its cinematic poetry if you will indulge my critical pretentiousness - but what it lacks in pure cinematic design it more than makes up for in an ultra-realistic intensity. [11/16/09]