“35 Shots of Rum” perfectly captures the need and importance of change in a world spinning so rapidly you cannot afford to stand pat, even if it means dealing with the pain of letting go.
Patience is required in downing something as intoxicating as Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum.” Gulp it down, and you’ll miss the nuances of an elixir that’s tart to the tongue and warming to the soul. That’s why Denis, ever the efficient bartender, serves it up slowly and tantalizingly with the occasional twist.
Initially, you resist her deliberateness in an early series of disconnected, dialogue-free images that provide an introduction to her central characters and the working-class Parisian neighborhood from which they hail.
Within moments, though, you find yourself instinctively falling into pace with her rhythmic, no-frills style of storytelling, which refreshingly emphasizes characters over plot.
That always has been Denis’ M.O. And it’s served her well in films like “Chocolat” and “The Intruder”; and it serves her well again with “35 Shots” and its haunting examination of a trio of relationships in transition.
At their core are Lionel (Alex Descas) and Josephine (Mati Diop), a widower and his twenty-something daughter, who is both anxious and reluctant to flee their co-dependant environment and begin a life on her own.
Her father, a Metro motorman with a face so chiseled it deserves a spot on Mount Rushmore, entertains similar longings that Denis somewhat overplays via recurring images of veering train tracks that teasingly beg Lionel to choose a different, less prescribed path. But to where? His old flame, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), has ideas, but they all include her; something Lionel is having nothing to do with, even though they remain close friends and neighbors in the cozy apartment complex they call home.
Looking down upon them all is the man upstairs. No, not Him, but Noe (Gregoire Colin), the young, handsome penthouse dweller whose thirst for adventure is topped only by his unrequited crush on the gorgeous, but unpretentious, Josephine.
All four actors superbly flesh out their complex characters with a minimum of dialogue. But their strength lies in the natural, lived-in feel they bring to their roles.
You grow to care deeply about each, their fears, their desires and their reluctance to act upon them every time the opportunity presents itself. And as your affection builds, so do the drama and the chance for self-examination.
Like Lionel, most of us are stuck on the same track, fearful of what might happen if we ever dared to get off. Denis takes this fact of life and cleverly runs with it.
You also like the multi-ethnicity of her characters, who not only represent the new face of Europe, they serve as a flesh-and-blood reminder of the wrongs endured by their ancestors under the repressive thumb of imperialism, especially in Africa, where Denis was raised.
If that sounds too heavy for such a breezy movie, it’s not. It’s just in keeping with Denis’ ever-present social conscience, which she freely displays without an ounce of heavy-handedness. It’s subtle and smooth, like the rest of “35 Shots of Rum,” which perfectly captures the need and importance of change in a world spinning so rapidly you cannot afford to stand pat, even if it means dealing with the pain of letting go.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
35 SHOTS OF RUM (Not rated) Cast includes Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue and Gregoire Colin. Co-written and directed by Claire Denis.