Tuesday, February 2, 2010

35 Shots of Rum [35 Rhums]

It feels like a funeral, which is ironic given that it ends with a wedding.

The central characters mixed up in Claire Denis' taciturn drama each have something to mourn: a parent vanished (or dead), a lover whose attentions have waned, a young daughter on the verge of growing up and away. Remarkable in a sparseness of information juxtaposed with a richness of detail, 35 Shots of Rum is the kind of movie for which critics' buzz-phrases like "slice of life" and "mood piece" ought to be reserved.

There are four main characters here, but I think the key to unlocking them has to be underdog secondary man René, who has only three or four scenes. All of them are crucial. When we meet him, René is retiring from a career working the transit rails with Lionel (arguably the ensemble's main character). His departure from the life he knew recalls Brooks' parole arc in The Shawshank Redemption: say what you will about the glamor of the job, it's all he knows or needs. He proceeds to wander about town like a ghost, showing up as if out of nowhere to ride the line with Lionel. "I don't want this life," he whispers of his impending 'freedom', his new iPod - a retirement gift - dangling from his ears like an albatross.

It's probably René's depression that spurs Lionel to consider the atrophying lives around him. He lives in an aging apartment complex with his daughter Joséphine. His neighbors are Gabrielle and Noé, who have their own complex, deep-seeded feelings for Lionel and Jo.

Everyone in the foursome wants something better for the others than what they themselves have to offer. But to consider that you aren't good enough for a person you love can feel like an admission of inferiority.

There's a really stunning set piece in the middle of the film. The four neighbors, en route to a concert when the car breaks down, end up taking shelter from the storm in a sleepy cafe. The owner, about to close up for the night before the love quadrangle walks in the door and starts ordering rum and kebabs, turns on some music and lets the party take its course. This leads to Lionel dancing with his old flame and his grown-up daughter, passing the lover off for the younger, curvier bartender and the latter off to the swarthy neighbor.

Moving to the sound of The Commodores' "Nightshift" (the re-appropriation of which here rivals something like "Goodbye Stranger" in Magnolia), Noé and Joséphine are as if betrothed by proximity. The reluctance on display is palpable. Whatever their past (and Denis will parcel out only less than we need to know), these two are the binding that must keep the family together after it's fallen apart. It's difficult to tell if their love is sincere or if its just a show for their parents. Lionel drives the trains, Gabrielle drives a taxi; everyone is on a course to start a new chapter in their lives, but in order to do so they have to end the old ones.

35 Shots of Rum is about the evolution of families, the circle of life and the sting of saying goodbye. These lonesome people want to change their fates for the better but first must suffer the long-simmering pain of letting go. It's a solemn eulogy to lifetimes gone by, eloquently spoken with a hopefulness for the future.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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