In a particularly poignant scene from 35 Shots of Rum — a quiet, ineffable film from the French director, Claire Denis — a retiring train conductor confides in his colleague, the movie’s main character, Lionel, about his fear of returning to quotidian life.
“Surrendering to this condition,” he says, “is what’s so hard.”
Several scenes later in the movie, Lionel discovers the colleague’s mutilated body strewn across the train tracks.
35 Shots of Rum is not the first movie to consider the purgatorial plight of the immigrant within the modern political state — the reality of being both a local and an outsider, a citizen of the city (Paris, in this case) but a denizen of its outskirts.
The film is, however, one of the most tactful and restrained of its kind to emerge within recent years, and also one of the most affecting. Indeed, given that the majority of people encounter postcolonial theory way up in the stratosphere of academia, it’s remarkable how Denis manages to distill the essence of these esoteric theories without coming off as preachy or abrasive. 35 Shots of Rum is a deeply human story, despite the lofty intellectual backdrop.
This isn’t to say the movie is flawless. While Denis’s gentle, understated cinematography is essential to the film’s aesthetic — and often bracingly beautiful — sometimes the pacing feels so slow you worry the film no longer has a pulse. Then again, this sort of intimate interpersonal communication is partly the point of film. Denis’s long pans on her characters, and especially on their faces, do more toward humanizing them than most directors accomplish through entire scenes of dialogue.
The story follows two men and two women living in the same apartment complex in the banlieues of Paris: Lionel, a train conductor and African immigrant; his daughter, Joséphine, a college student; Noé, Joséphine’s love interest, and the only white person among them; and Gabrielle, a taxi driver with an obvious romantic attachment to Lionel. Through their eyes we see a Paris not often depicted in movies: drab, industrial neighborhoods inhabited almost exclusively by immigrants. The sites normally associated with Paris — the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, etc. — are nowhere to be seen. In fact, if the characters weren’t speaking French, you might mistake the “city of lights” for any downtrodden manufacturing city in the U.S.
For the most part, Denis lets the characters’ interactions and expressions propel the story forward, always gently. Like the trains Lionel guides, the story glides along, shifting gears and changing tracks with an effortlessness approaching grace. However, it’s not lost on viewers that, like the trains on the tracks, the characters in the film are trapped, working to free themselves from social strictures and political structures.
Still, this film is its characters’ story.
In the most memorable scene, Lionel slow dances with Joséphine at a bar somewhere on the city’s outskirts. As father and daughter dance, Noé approaches and takes her into his own arms. Lionel slinks back to the bar and watches as Noé runs his fingers through Joséphine’s hair and brings her up against him, eventually kissing her. Lionel then begins dancing with another woman, inflicting obvious pain on Gabrielle, who’s left alone at the bar.
Like the rest of the movie, the scene is charged with complicated and unspoken emotion, and relies on visceral details — a stony stare, a smoldering cigarette, a pair of hands clenched together — rather than dialogue or exposition to deliver its emotional punch. The events of that evening have no tangible consequences for Lionel, Gabrielle, Joséphine and Noé, and are never neatly resolved. Noé announces he is leaving for a job overseas. Gabrielle disappears almost entirely from the narrative (and the camera) frame. Lionel and Joséphine stay, their lives mostly unchanged. So much in this movie is left unexplained, unsaid and unresolved that at a certain point we simply abandon our search for a traditional narrative and surrender ourselves to the film’s meditative lull.
That there is no story might be the story.
35 Shots of Rum is playing tonight at 7:15 p.m., tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. and Monday, Mar. 8 at 9:30 p.m. in Willard Straight Hall.
Original Author: Liam Berkowitz