35 Shots of Rum (Denis, 2009)

Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum infuses the textures, spaces, and shadows of a Parisian apartment building with a unique and baffling poetry. The hallways are cramped but inviting, the rooms warm with routine and knowingness. These places spin with unrequited love, miscommunication, and disappointment, slowly unveiling complex human relationships over time.

Streets and railways merely act as momentary drop off points, way stations for lives favoring an interior existence. Denis creates melancholy in the smallest details so her film swells with expanding possibility. Midway through the fleeting story, one haunting moment in a small club juxtaposes a lifetime of love, lust, and regret with the sensual sounds of The Commodores’ Night Shift. It’s a bravura cinematic slow dance flushed with unspoken and unseen romantic entanglement, the sensual highlight of a fragmented overarching shuffle.

Denis complicates her lyrical view of everyday life with a disjointed, alienating outlook on character interaction, breaking down dialogue sequences with jump cuts, temporal shifts, and jarring transitions. Unlike the recent films Summer Hours or Still Walking, 35 Shots of Rum never fully opens its characters up for inspection, gradually wearing down their outer layers only to reveal denser shields underneath. This approach doesn’t diminish the impact of the film, but it puts the viewer on the outside looking in, watching as gaps grow larger and questions become more intriguing than the answers.

While many have pointed out Denis’ film seems more about the journey than the destination, I’d argue it focuses on endings above all else. Lionel (Alex Descas) comes to grips with his daughter Josephine’s (Mati Diop) adulthood, while longtime friend Rene’s short retirement ends with mental and physical death. Gabrielle’s (Nicole Dogue) disappointing realization about Lionel contrasts Noe’s (Gregorie Colin) own emotional endgame with Josephine, yet each relationship represents a form of finality. Despite Denis’ adherence to linearity, these moments of change and realization define her film.

Admiration for 35 Shots of Rum does not come close to the praise most critics have bestowed on the film, but that’s all I can muster after one viewing. Denis’ visual approach, her characters, her expressions, all exist within a confounding universe that inevitably takes some getting used to. She challenges the viewer to look beyond the emotion of her characters, into a place where the redemptions and reflections of life reveal more uncertainty than closure. Ambiguity often produces the most complex resolutions, but in 35 Shots of Rum, this equivocacy often strangles the tangible meaning out of life’s little moments, leaving us beguiled by a jazz-like modern existence.

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