What’s always struck me about Claire Denis is her capacity for creating films about people totally unlike herself -- whether a North African transvestite serial killer in I Can’t Sleep, a closeted homosexual sergeant In Beau Travail, or as in her latest film, 35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum), a stoic, working-class single father -- characters who convey an uncommon humanism and profound empathy for those living on the fringes of society. Best of all, Denis' films never register as sensational or as token post-colonial atonement. 35 rhums, perhaps her warmest, most humane story to date, deals with universal human experiences — love, loss, and growing up — but derives its strength from a host of surprising, idiosyncratic, and richly observed details.
These details are sometimes unexpectedly revealing (a rice cooker that is, somehow, more than a rice cooker), sometimes touching (a necklace passed on from father to daughter on her wedding day), and sometimes slightly morbid (a dead cat disposed of in a trash bag). They all work to give the story of single father Lionel (Alex Descas), a train conductor who embodies the director's quietly dignified ideal, and devoted daughter Josephine (Mati Diop), who is reluctant to leave the nest as she enters womanhood, its particularly rich texture. While Lionel navigates a complicated relationship with his ex-lover and neighbor, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), Josephine contends with advances from her close but erratic friend Noe (Gregoire Colin).
The centerpiece of the film is a slyly sexy scene in which the central characters, caught in the rain on the way to a concert, take shelter in a café. In Denis’ hands, this nearly wordless sequence becomes a delicate ballet of shifting glances — gazes are averted, met, and unspoken desires are made known — lubricated by alcohol and shot in warm, golden tones. There Josephine’s affection for Noe becomes clear, as does the distance that is beginning to grow between father and daughter.
In this scene and others, music (specifically, The Commodores’ “Nightshift”) features prominently. Denis is a director who understands the way music creeps into and subtly transforms our everyday lives, both underscoring and, sometimes, undercutting profound moments in them. The rap music pumped incongruously through the speakers at Josephine's workplace (a record store) makes the advances of a would-be-suitor who accosts her there all the more awkward. When a favorite song comes on the car stereo, a mundane cab ride is suddenly rendered transcendent.
Denis' recurring shots of winding train tracks prove a fitting metaphor for the sprawling, meandering nature of the film’s narrative, which moves not through a typical, three-act structure but, rather, unfolds in looser, more organic way. Lives unexpectedly converge, grow apart, and are sometimes derailed, but they somehow always get where they’re going.