The Major and the Minor
Adam Nayman on 35 Shots of Rum

In Claire Denis’ L’Intrus (2004), Michel Subor’s aged mercenary finds himself in a bar in Pusan, harmonizing with a stranger: “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” It’s a moment of connection in a film that tracks the movements of a lone wolf, and as such, it’s short-lived. The succor provided by a great piece of pop can only last for so long. 35 Shots of Rum, also features an interlude in people come together to the strains of a beloved song, but the harmony this time is one of bodies rather than voices, and the moment is not fleeting but suspended in time. Having been thwarted in their attempt to attend a concert by a combination of car trouble and heavy rain, the film’s principal characters—veteran train-driver Lionel (Alex Descas), his college-age daughter Jo (Mati Diop), and two neighbors from their humble Paris apartment complex, Noe (Grégoire Colin) and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue)—duck into a near-empty, African café for shelter.

Their tetchiness, which had been building since well before the downpour, eases and then abates at the sound of music, leading to an impromptu pas de quatre that, in its languorous yet dizzying exchanges of partners and glances, serves as a précis of the film’s dramatic action. Lionel dances with Jo, the daughter who is more like a life partner; we have already seen them in their odd version of domestic bliss, she hovering over a rice cooker while he showers after a long day’s work, eventually sitting down to share their dinner in comfortable not-quite-silence. As the Commodores’ undeniable “Nightshift” starts up, Lionel cedes the dance to Noe, the proverbial boy next door (or, rather, the boy upstairs). We know that he has feelings for Jo, and that they’re only partially reciprocated. Lionel moves off and dances with the café owner (Adele Ado), while Gabrielle, who lives down the hall, looks on with—what is it? Jealousy? Sadness? Resignation? Meanwhile, those voices swim through the room: “it’s gonna be a long night/it’s gonna be alright.”

Most reviews of 35 Shots of Rum, which premiered last fall at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals after getting passed over for Cannes (for what? Goddamned Il Divo?) and New York (how you doing, Happy-Go-Lucky?) have lavished special attention on this sequence, and with good reason—golden with bar-light courtesy of certified genius DP Agnès Godard and seamlessly cut together by Guy Lecorne, it’s a revivifying fusion of music, mood, and movement. As such, it’s also the highlight of the film, which has already been characterized—and, accordingly, marginalized—as a “minor work.” This backhanded designation goes nicely with the other prefab critical line, which is that 35 Shots of Rum is Denis’s “most accessible” work to date.

Both of these positions are at least understandable when 35 Shots of Rum is placed in conversation with its immediate predecessor: for my money, L’Intrus’ hemispherical arrangement (moving from frozen Swiss fields to lush Gaugin seas), post-Soderberghian interpolations of an older film featuring Michel Subor (Paul Gegauff’s La Reflux), and obdurate refusal of the literal-figurative binary (a tactic that gains in clarity after multiple viewings) makes it not only Denis’s masterpiece, but perhaps the most ambitious narrative feature of the 2000s, full stop. By contrast, 35 Shots of Rum is a modest enterprise. Its narrative—which borrows liberally (and undisguisedly) from Yasujuro Ozu’s Late Spring—is perfectly comprehensible on a first viewing. But it is not a retreat. Its modesty is the kind borne not of tentativeness but rather supreme confidence, and proves as beguiling—and irreducible—as L’Intrus’ ellipticism.

One thing that the two films share is an emphasis on familial bonds, something not exactly new to Denis (see Nénette et Boni) but still absent (even if as a structuring absence) from her other recent work. In L’Intrus, Subor’s enveloping melancholy is gradually linked to his longing for reconciliation with a son he left behind, and the futility of his attempt to buy himself a (literal) change of heart. 35 Shots of Rum orbits a character with an entirely different problem. Lionel and Jo are astonishingly close. They are, to borrow Cormac McCarthy’s eloquent phrase, “each the other’s world entire.” Lionel is neither demanding nor controlling, and he does not need to be looked after. We see that what binds Jo to him is his goodness. But we also see that their cozy cohabitation is also a codependency, and that all the good work Lionel has done in raising his child may be undone by sheer force of affection.

Some writers have characterized this bond (which Denis says was inspired by her mother’s relationship with her own father) as slightly “incestuous,” but Denis and her constant cowriter Jean-Pol Fargeau (a brilliant artist in his own right who is at once fortunate and unfortunate to work with a filmmaker whose visual sense commands so much attention) elide any sense of prurience (or judgment). As in Late Spring, the movement of the story is tied to the potential movement of the daughter—whether Jo’s devotion, however understandable, will hamper her chances for a life of her own. Lionel even says as much, suggesting that a break might be needed, but as his resolve is in her genes, the impetus has to come from somewhere else. Grégoire Colin’s Noe, who doesn’t have a family of his own, is an appealing suitor, both to us and to Lionel, who seems resigned to his frequent intrusions. Asked to do more than his usual of embodying limpid male beauty, Colin proves an able goofball, triumphing in a one-take sequence where Noe dives into a canal to emphasize his feelings (and then has to catch up to the camera, which moves in unimpressed lockstep with Jo). Lionel also has a suitor: Dogue’s Gabrielle, whose history with her neighbor gradually comes into focus even as the film’s main attentions lie elsewhere.

This being a Denis film, these interpersonal vertices (also including Jo’s relationship with Gabrielle, who seems to function as, if not a surrogate mother, then at least a beloved aunt) are sketched very faintly, with exposition kept to a minimum. Whenever possible, Denis opts for the visual over the prosaic. The opening sequence, showing Lionel at work, establishes his stoic demeanor (fetching stoicism being Descas’s specialty), but also places us in a decidedly different Paris than the one je t’aime’d to death by so many celluloid tourists. Instead, we’re in a faintly drab, partially subterranean realm, a network of rails and tunnels that circles and undergirds the City of Lights. The tracks are lonely, but the station house is an oasis: Lionel’s coworkers are mostly French-African or Caribbean, and so there’s a continuity to their after-hours revelry that goes beyond professional commiseration. Denis has always had an interest in what might be called “concentric communities”—tightly knit enclaves within a larger urban space—and 35 Shots of Rum is no exception. The film doesn’t overstate the drivers’ bande apart camaraderie, although the payoff to one subplot involving an operator forced into early retirement is atonally melodramatic.

Actually, there are a few lapses in 35 Shots of Rum: a didactic scene in one of Jo’s university classes in which students pontificate about the perils of globalization; a diversion to Germany that (as Andrew Tracy notes in his Cinema Scope piece on the film) reeks of obligation to Teutonic financiers; the offhand revelation of the film’s title, which is several shades too coy. But then Denis has never been about “perfection.” The cerebral/sensual hybridity of her work gives it an unruly dimension that precision-tuned storytellers like the Dardennes avoid and hermetic theme-mongers like Michael Haneke work to deny; even superbly controlled works like Beau travail have their odd digressions. In this way, she resembles her friend Olivier Assayas, whose recent Summer Hours has also been damned in some corners with the faint praise of being a “minor” work, but which stealthily accrues resonance even as it appears to simply be idling. (I would, by the way, take Assayas’s relaxed bourgeois empathy over Arnaud Desplechin’s showier version of same any day of the week).

35 Shots of Rum is similarly stealthy, building—superfluous scenes and all—to an earned and satisfying resolution, topped off with a shot of two rice cookers side-by-side that emphasizes the Ozu connection while still retaining metaphoric legibility for those viewers unequipped to process the allusion. So yes, it’s “accessible,” insomuch as it’s not “inaccessible,” an unappetizing designation that usually says more about the critics who wield it than anything else. Denis’s cinema of bodies, glances, and impeccably eclectic soundtracks has never necessarily been one of distance: even L’Intrus balanced conceptual provocation against intimate imagery: a sex scene between Subor and his pharmacist that blends the texture of his back and her face into a mottled match; a close up of Colin’s baby son suffused with true love and wonder. As for the charges of 35 Shots of Rum being a “minor” work, well, that designation says more about the other films in Denis’s canon than anything else. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. The feeling I get when I think back to any one of a dozen small (minor?) moments—Lionel’s sudden flatulent indulgence in his neighbor’s apartment; Jo’s fingers clasped around her father’s chest as they ride together on his motorcycle; eyes meeting across a not-so-crowded room—suggests that it really doesn’t matter.