“O pardon the one who knocks for pardon at
 your gate, father – your hound-bitch, daughter, friend.
 It was my love that did us both to death.”
– Sylvia Plath, “Electra on Azalea Path” (1)

An opening shot from the inside of a train, which at first glance is reminiscent of one of the most consistent motifs in Yasujiro Ozu’s cinema (a tribute that takes different forms across the film we are watching), opens Claire Denis’ 12th feature film: 35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008). The evocative Tindersticks (regular collaborators on her films) soundtrack introduces us to this delicate yet provocative film. All the elements that make Denis’ oeuvre such an outstanding thing to explore are here: human alienation (from each other, from one’s land: the story of the outsider); “improper” love; homo-eroticism; improper relations; cross-cultural tensions and isolation.

In 35 rhums, Lionel (Alex Descas), a widower and train conductor soon to be retired, and his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop), an anthropology student, share a small apartment. They have very little money and are resigned to a continuous but meaningfully routine existence. Their relationship is affectionate, though the love they share is Oedipal, warm but somewhat uncomfortable. Between this strange father and daughter bind, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) appears, a cab driver neighbour who’s clearly interested in Lionel, and Noé (Gregoire Colin), a young man who is looking for another place to live. hot from the inside of a train, which at first glance is reminiscent of one of the most consistent motifs in Yasujiro Ozu’s cinema (a tribute that takes different forms across the film we are watching), opens Claire Denis’ 12th feature film: 35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008). The evocative Tindersticks (regular collaborators on her films) soundtrack introduces us to this delicate yet provocative film. All the elements that make Denis’ oeuvre such an outstanding thing to explore are here: human alienation (from each other, from one’s land: the story of the outsider); “improper” love; homo-eroticism; improper relations; cross-cultural tensions and isolation.An opening shot from the inside of a train, which at first glance is reminiscent of one of the most consistent motifs in Yasujiro Ozu’s cinema (a tribute that takes different forms across the film we are watching), opens Claire Denis’ 12th feature film: 35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, 2008). The evocative Tindersticks (regular collaborators on her films) soundtrack introduces us to this delicate yet provocative film. All the elements that make Denis’ oeuvre such an outstanding thing to explore are here: human alienation (from each other, from one’s land: the story of the outsider); “improper” love; homo-eroticism; improper relations; cross-cultural tensions and isolation.

But it is actually the Electra complex that permeates all the daily interactions between Lionel and Josephine. In the original myth, Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon, avenges her father’s death, killing her mother, Clytemnestra, as well as her mother’s lover Aegisthus. Denis’ film offers something disturbingly similar. Josephine, Lionel’s daughter, seems to take the place of her lost mother, and in doing so, becomes the widower’s new “lover”, occupying the space of this lost woman. This is handled very subtly by Denis, and does not detract from the film’s intimate and warm atmosphere. But Denis has always been drawn to the dark side of humanity, and here, no matter how slight the suggestion, there is a strange atmosphere that clogs the film’s narrative. Gabrielle and Noé are mere intruders in Josephine and Lionel’s relationship; their appearances almost seem to bother the couple, and they are not welcome in this bonded space created between father and daughter.

Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, who was unfairly accused by some of displaying incest in his film Otets i syn (Father and Son, 2003), approached the relationship between parent and child in a different manner. Sokurov’s view was pure and reflected the strongest possible bond between a son and his father. He followed a similar line in his masterpiece Mat i syn (Mother and Son, 1997), where the son accompanies his mother in the last hours of her life. These are both deeply spiritual films, where the love between parents and their children is expressed

It is remarkable how Denis keeps reworking the same common elements with such mastery, always finding a fresh new angle. In the ritualised world of 35 rhums, we see René (Julieth Mars Toussaint) overcome by depression because of his retirement. He doesn’t find meaning within but through the significance of his work. Without it he is lost. Aide-de-camp Galoup (Denis Lavant), the complex military character in Denis’ Beau travail (1999), encounters the same fate after being expelled from the Foreign Legion, a moment that leads to a celebrated (at least by Denis fans) grand finale. Sadly, there is no dance for René, only the deep desire for death, a desire he makes true. While Galoup falls back on the gun that defined his career, René returns to the same train that was part of his work (and which highlights the communication and distance between the film’s characters). There is a never-ending cycle of themes and motifs handled flawlessly.  in an exquisite and sublime manner. Denis also goes down this path, but in her universe the spiritual is mixed with the consuming excesses of love. Josephine and Lionel love each other too much, and this love leads them along obscure paths. Of course, such “excess” is much more disturbingly displayed in a film like Trouble Every Day (2001), where Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle play cannibals with an unquenchable thirst for human flesh, a deeper need of connection and love unsustainable in a normal human relationship. In the extremes of love, Denis’ characters seem to lose control or take improper directions and actions.

One of the best scenes in 35 rhums is the bar sequence, in which Lionel, Gabrielle, Noé and Josephine meet and share a dance. The affection, gazes, shared smiles, and knowing looks respond to a dance where the partners are physically together but mentally distant. But they also indicate the point where the relation between Lionel and Josephine becomes less ethereal and more grounded. This dance is the final celebration of the dissolution of their bond, the realisation that somehow the daughter needs to get on with her life and find a new relationship, breaking the ties that link her to her father. Eventually this happens, and Josephine marries a nervous Noé. Then, the ritual of the 35 rhums, one of loss and grief, takes on yet another meaning, as Lionel drinks the requisite number of shots and returns to his life, alone, leaving behind what he had loved so much.

35 rhums is one of the greatest films of Denis’ career, one in which the filmmaker, influenced by the skill and style of Ozu, encounters a delicate balance between ritual and tragedy, loss and daily life. Never has Denis been so subtle in her mise en scène, never so evocative and mysterious. 35 rhums is a masterpiece of sorts, a film that demands to be seen over and over again.

Endnotes

  1. Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes, Harper & Row, New York, 1981, p. 116.

35 rhums/35 Shots of Rum  (2008 France 97 mins)

Prod Co: Soudaine Compagnie Prod: Bruno Pesery Dir: Claire Denis Scr: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fageau Phot: Agnès Godard Ed: Guy Lecorne Art Dir: Arnaud de Moleron Mus: Tindersticks, Stuart Staples

Cast: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue, Grégoire Colin, Ingrid Caven, Jean-Christophe Folly, Djédjé Apali, Eriq Ebouaney, Stéphane Pocrain, Julieth Mars Toussaint, Adèle Ado

About The Author

José Sarmiento Hinojosa, a social communications major, has been a film critic and publicist for almost 10 years. He’s currently the co-director of desistfilm.com, an international film website for the research of unattended and obscure cinema