In the simple steadfast training of the camera lens, cinema has the ability to give seemingly mundane objects or actions an almost supernatural provenance; in so doing, it can change how we see the world. It sounds like a lofty notion, but it’s actually a literal truth. Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 36 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” for me forever transformed light switches, pots of boiling potatoes, and breaded cutlets into powerful cinematic touchstones, while more recently, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Syndromes and a Century” made a basement ventilation pipe into something as mysterious, grandiose, and foreboding as Kubrick’s otherworldly “2001” monolith. And now, thanks to Claire Denis’s effortlessly humane, enormously moving “35 Shots of Rum,” I’ll never look at a rice cooker quite the same way again.
The item, unlikely in its beauty, encased in appealingly lightweight red plastic, may seem peripheral to the lovingly meandering narrative of Denis’s film, but its significance to the film’s main characters — Lionel, a middle-aged train conductor (a handsome and commanding Alex Descas) and his college-student daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) —however understated, cannot be overstated. Lionel and Josephine live together in a nondescript apartment in Paris, their daily interactions imbued with easygoing familiarity and unspoken devotion, a rare harmonious onscreen familial relationship painted by Denis with the subtlest of strokes. In the opening, Lionel returns home from a day on the rails, slips out of his clothes and into the shower; at the same time, Josephine, getting off work from the local CD shop, enters, carrying the new kitchen gadget. The nonemphatic domestic routine that follows (they almost wordlessly cook and enjoy what appears to be some sort of Moroccan stew) spells out much of what we need to know about these two people: the small pleasures of life, and each other, are not lost on them; the casual warmth radiates off the screen, and we easily take away this quotidian contentment as well.
Of course, this being a film by Claire Denis, perhaps contemporary cinema’s most confidently abstract artisan, this is all told as though a rush of feelings and glimpsed moments rather than through sharply defined events and turning points. It’s always helpful to consider what other filmmakers might do with the same material, and it’s almost certain that a more linear-oriented director would flatten the film’s temporality into a succession of confrontations and momentous plot points: Lionel’s question of what to do with his life as he reaches retirement age; his ongoing ignoring of his longtime neighbor and possible ex-girlfriend Gabrielle (a lovely, restive Nicole Dogue), who’s something of a mother figure to Josephine; Josephine’s on-again, off-again relationship with the wily Noe (Denis fixture Gregoire Colin), an upstairs neighbor who Lionel doesn’t seem to approve of for his daughter. Denis has claimed that the film is her rendition of Ozu’s “Late Spring,” and the bare bones of that work’s lovely father-daughter pas de deux are easily glimpsed. There are retirement parties, a wedding, even a tragic death — yet Denis, as always, uses narrative as though a secondary audio track to an already mellifluous freeform visual riff.
Despite her proclivity to present this film’s plot and character in a fragmentary manner, Denis here doesn’t purposely alienate us from them. Whereas in “L’Intrus” (maybe her masterpiece this decade) the people and setting became highly allegorical and her and her brilliant DP Agnes Godard’s ability at conveying the tactility of experience easily segued into rich, novelistic abstraction, “35 Shots of Rum” remains grounded in relatable everydayness, even as it refuses to explain every character’s action and motivation. Its already heralded central scene set after-hours in a café — where Lionel, Josephine, Gabrielle, and Noe end up stranded following the breakdown of their car in a rainstorm — is perhaps the clearest example of Denis’s mastery of space and rhythm, a tense and romantic exchange of glances, smiles, and resentments that now plays like something of a warm riposte to Tarantino’s lengthy tavern scene in “Inglourious Basterds” — except that here the force connecting and motivating everyone is not betrayal and fear but attraction and love, sexual as well as familial. Perhaps there’s nothing as grandiose in Denis’s cinema as in Tarantino’s, but her filmmaking is just as thrillingly alive.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]