Recently, Ruthless Culture has become somewhat fixated with films that deal with alienation, death, misery, insanity and violence. Fixated enough that I think a bit of a change might be welcome and I can think of no better a vehicle for change than Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums (2008).
35 Shots of Rum is a warm-hearted but utterly uncompromising drama revolving around a somewhat extended family grouping. Lionel (Alex Descas) lives with his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) in a block of flats that also serves as home to Lionel’s old partner Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) and old friend of the family Noe (Gregoire Colin). If I use vague terminology such as ‘partner’ and ‘friend of the family’ it is because, initially at least, many of the relationships in 35 Shots of Rum are unclear. This lack of clarity is not only intensional, it is one that continues throughout the film as Denis tries to place us in the same position as her characters… we know how we feel but we do not know where everyone stands.
When Lionel returns home from work, his daughter greets him warmly at the door. She puts away his coat and then sets his slippers at his feet before heading off to make his dinner. It is not until several minutes in that Josephine calls Lionel “Papa” and for those fleeting moments, it is genuinely unclear whether the pair are lovers, parent and child or both. Josephine is utterly devoted to her father. Aside from fetching, carrying and cooking for him, she also washes and irons his clothes. The pair share a degree of psychological and physical intimacy that is so extreme that it is almost awkward to watch. However, while Josephine and Lionel’s relationship snaps into focus fairly quickly, Denis is a lot more cagey with Noe and Gabrielle.
When we first encounter Gabrielle, she is asking Josephine whether she wants her to get a couple of extra tickets for a concert. The love that Gabrielle clearly has for Josephine along with the pathetic attempt at ingratiation and Josephine’s aloofness suggest that Gabrielle might well be Josephine’s estranged mother. Similarly, when we first encounter Noe he is presented as a marginal and almost threatening figure. Noe returns home late, he avoids Josephine and Lionel and they avoid him back. However, this initial emotional topography is deliberately misleading. In truth, it is Gabrielle who is the interloper and Noe who is the much-missed de facto family member. The emotional tension between how these relationships appear and how they really are is ultimately what drives 35 Shots of Rum forward.
The film opens with what will become a recurring visual motif : Footage of trains. For long minutes we are shown footage of trains during the day and footage of trains during the night. We are shown the outsides of trains and the insides of trains. We see Josephine in trains and we see Lionel in Trains. At one point, Noe and Josephine go running and just as they come into shot a train scuttles discretely along the horizon. Cosmetically, this motif is due to the fact that Lionel is a train driver, but thematically, the trains are reminders of the difference between implied freedom and actual freedom. To drive a train is to be responsible for travelling but without any real choice in where you go to or how you get there. This is clearly indicative of Lionel’s mode of existence.
Throughout the film, Lionel reminds Josephine that she is free to do as she wishes and so is he. But the reality of the pair’s situation s quite different. In effect, they live in a precariously balanced emotional house of cards with Gabrielle serving as a kind of mother figure but without either Lionel or Josephine recognising her as such. Similarly, Noe lives in his parents’ old apartment with an ancient cat and a load of ugly furniture but he is deeply conflicted about this state of affairs. On the one hand, he refuses to change anything in his flat, but on the other he is forever going away on trips out of the country suggesting restlessness and need for change. At one point, the film follows Josephine to one of her anthropology classes and there is a debate about the best way to handle Third World debt. Josephine argues that one should avoid emotional terms that might upset the apple-cart while others talk about the injustice of the system. Then one student quotes the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon who claimed that revolutions are not attempts to save any particular culture, they are simply the result of a universalised inability to breathe. This quote applies to the imbalance between the global North and the global South just as easily as it does to Lionel and Josephine’s domestic situation.
35 Shots of Rum is clearly modeled on Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (1949). Ozu’s central relationship resembles that of Denis’ but he is much more willing to attribute blame. Ozu presents the daughter as battling to keep hold of her widowed father who is, quite clearly, ready to move on with his life and re-marry. Brilliantly, Ozu has the status quo come tumbling down with a single gesture when, during a night out at the theatre, the father nods at a local widow, thereby publicly declaring his interest in her. Denis’ collapse happens because the family fail to make it to an evening out at a concert. As the four are readying to depart, one of Josephine’s fellow students turns up to ask her out. Noe, despite never having really attempted to seduce Josephine, takes visible umbrage at this. When the group’s car breaks down they are forced to find shelter in a local African restaurant and as the rum starts to flow, people start dancing and in a wonderful and almost wordless scene, the house of cards topples over.
Initially, Lionel dances with Gabrielle and the woman positively radiates with joy at the chance to be back in her old lover’s arms. Then Lionel dances with his daughter and Noe unexpectedly cuts in. The physical chemistry between Noe and Josephine is immediately apparent as their hands run over each other in time with the music. Suddenly, Noe leans in for a kiss and Josephine responds before realising that she is in an African restaurant kissing the only white guy there. She immediately pulls back but even then she refuses to let Noe escape, she guides him to sit next to her as the food is served. Then, Lionel decides to dance with the restaurant’s owner and a similar physical chemistry emerges between the two dancers. Gabrielle watches on, heart-broken. The following morning, the group have lost all sense of where they stand. Ashamed and humiliated, Noe makes a big show of demonstrating how unattached he is to life in Paris by putting his recently dead cat in a rubbish bag before announcing that he is taking a job in Gabon. Gabrielle moans that her head hurts. Horrified at Noe’s departure, Josephine starts aggressively cleaning the apartment. Lionel senses that he is free but is unsure of how to deal with it and is puzzled that this sudden freedom has caused so much upset. He is paralysed with indecision, unsure of what it is he needs to hold on to and what it is he needs to get rid of in order to be happy. At work, Lionel receives a visit from a recently retired former colleague. Visibly at a loose end, Rene (Julieth Mars Toussaint) claims that he has “tons” of plans but he struggles to do anything. He cannot leave Paris but he is unhappy staying. Much like Lionel, he finds himself facing true freedom and too scared to move.
Lionel and Josephine suddenly decide to take a trip. They drive to Germany and visit someone who initially seems to be a friend or possible future room-mate for Josephine but then we realise that the real meeting is taking place between Lionel and an old German woman. We then learn that Gabrielle is not Josephine’s mother but rather a woman who loved Lionel so much that she wanted to live close to him and his daughter. In reality, Josephine’s mother was a white woman who passed away years previously. Lionel and Josephine spruce up her final resting place and then spend a few days on the beach. The old German woman expressed fear at the idea of being by the sea; A place where there was no land and where, were you to be swept away, nobody would hear you scream. This is the same fear as that felt by Rene, Lionel and Josephine but something has changed. Lionel and Josephine do not fear the sea… they love it. Josephine (echoing the sentiments of the daughter in Ozu’s film) wishes that they could stay there for ever.
When the pair return to Paris, the situation is initially not much clearer. Lionel dresses for a funeral, Josephine dresses for a wedding, Gabrielle returns to being an interloper while Noe stands outside Lionel and Josephine’s door, too nervous to come in but with no desire to leave. These final scenes are another inversion of the emotional topography presented to us at the beginning of the film. The characters still stand in the same places but the emotional ties between them are radically different. Lionel dresses for a funeral but he is not unhappy. Josephine seems ready to get married and she radiates with happiness in the same way that Gabrielle did while dancing with Lionel. Are the pair attending a wedding or a funeral? in a way both and neither. The film’s final shot sees Lionel taking out a second rice steamer that Josephine bought in error at the beginning of the film.
As a piece of cinematic construction, this final sequence is fascinating as it suggests great personal change but does not actually show it.
Lionel dresses for a funeral (implying something has ended), Josephine dresses for a wedding (implying that something is about to start), a rice steamer (which was in the apartment since the beginning of the film) is moved to sit next to the one the pair generally use and Lionel drinks 35 shots of rum, a ritual that is never explained at any point in the film but Lionel’s dark muttering that he isn’t ready to drink them suggests that it is yet another marker for change. As an audience, we assume that Josephine is going to marry Noe and that the extra rice steamer represents the fact that Lionel and Josephine will now be preparing their dinners separately, but Denis does not show us the group’s future or the status of the new relationships.
We might think that Noe now wants to stay and that Gabrielle is happier being an outsider but these are simply conclusions we leap to because of the general shape of the film and the genre norms of these kinds of dramas. In effect, Denis has left us in the same situation we were in at the beginning of the film; We are tempted to make certain judgments about the characters’ relationships but in truth we lack the evidence from which to draw solid conclusions. Much like the characters, we rely upon a sense of emotional inertia (informed by familiarity with certain dramatic forms) to determine where everyone stands. For example, at the beginning of the film, Gabrielle saw herself as a mother to Josephine because that is how she felt. Similarly, Noe saw himself as an outsider because that was the role he saw himself as inhabiting. But both of these roles, though emotionally authentic, were ultimately deceptive as being an outsider or someone’s mother depends not only upon how one feels but how others feel about you. The characters knew how they felt but they did not know how others felt about them and so they leapt to conclusions, the same kinds of conclusions that we leap to at the end and the beginning of the film. But if the film has shown us one thing, it is to never take these kinds of judgments for granted.
In a master-class of cinematic affect, 35 Shots of Rum starves us of information whilst giving ample space in which to gorge ourselves emotionally. Like the characters, we do not know where we stand but we know how we feel. The film rests upon the audience’s feelings of sympathy and empathy towards the characters. These feelings are achieved partly due to Denis and long-time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau’s skill at creating interesting and likeable characters but mostly through Denis’ willingness to allow us to simply spend time in the presence of her characters. We see Lionel padding about the place as he showers before dinner. We see Gabrielle having lunch in her taxi and we see Josephine writing an essay while listening to some music. This kind of sleepy domesticity is strongly reminiscent of certain reality TV shows. For example, before the producers of Big Brother decided to ply the house-mates with booze and harass them into performing like trained seals, the bulk of the series was made up simply of the house mates living very mundane televised lives. They would eat, sunbathe, chat, sleep and shuffle aimlessly about the house. Many people would read or surf the net with their TVs tuned to E4 in the background while the house-mates slept, somehow gaining something from the televised presence of these complete strangers. Denis understands what the producers of Big Brother have long-since lost sight of : to experience the minutiae of another person’s life is to grow to empathise with them and to empathise with a person is to become emotionally attached to them. And emotions can be powerfully misleading.