35 Shots Of Rum

Reviewed by John Stakes

The Norwegian rail network featured strongly in “O’Horten” one of the earlier films in the current season. In last Sunday’s screening of this her twelfth film “35 Shots of Rum” French writer/director Claire Denis introduced us to the Parisian Metro network and two of its employees around whom much of the domestic drama unfolded.

All the main characters occupied the same modest tenement building and were regarded, at least by one of them, Gabrielle, a taxi driver, as a family. Their lives were certainly connected in more ways than simply as flat dwellers in the same block. Widower and train driver, Lionel, and his student daughter, Josephine, occupied one of the flats. Gabrielle would have liked to couple up with Lionel, but he resisted her advances. Noé, a handsome young man on the top floor had an eye for Joséphine who sensed her father’s resistance to him born out of fear of losing her. The only other significant figure was retiring railway colleague, René, who was destined to be unable to adjust to life without the support of the railway network he’d been a part of all his life and ultimately committed suicide on one of the tracks.

All the main characters had French-Caribbean roots. The tenement and their loosely-knit relationships at least provided some order and security against the insecurity within their own lives and the outside world. Director Denis spent perhaps rather longer than necessary showing us trains running along railway lines as a metaphor both for the ordered nature of Lionel’s life and the inability of all the characters to take control of their own lives. Noé talked of selling up, and Joséphine was disconcerted enough by her father’s reaction to Noé to speak of leaving home, but there was no sign of any real break looming.

In an unexpected narrative lurch prompted possibly by René’s death, Lionel took Josephine off in a camper van to visit her mother’s grave, and to meet up with Josephine’s alcoholic aunt and cousin.

As Lionel presented as a taciturn type and as Denis seemed preoccupied in filming these events in an economic a way as possible, with Pinteresque pauses littering a perfunctory script, it was left to a patient audience to decipher the nuanced shifting relationships of these wholly unexceptional and not particularly interesting people. How could they be when Denis never gave them the opportunity to develop? And did this reviewer also detect a whiff of Gallic detachment which inhibited the nurturing of anything more than a superficial interest in the residents of this undistinguished Paris suburb?

The film’s core relationship being that between Lionel and his daughter strangely came across as the least persuasive and it was difficult to believe that there was anything other than mere convenience or economic necessity to confine Josephine to Lionel’s quarters despite the frequent hugs which took over when the sparse dialogue ran out. Whilst Denis’s camera captured every glance and facial expression, intended no doubt to convey more than mere words could express, there seemed to be precious little going on to be captured. It was as if there was insufficient substance to underpin the subtlety of her direction.

Denis’s style created a veneer of realism and a potential for involvement but lacking any dramatic spark the film never truly kick started into life and proceeded at the same one-paced rate as the trains she was so fond of. Sympathy for all these unfortunate characters was however generated in the scene where Gabrielle’s taxi, in which they were all travelling to a concert, broke down in pouring rain, a moment in the film that a Keswick audience could readily identify with these past few days. Director of “Chocolat” Denis has a reputation as being somewhat of a maverick in the film world and her films are regarded as never less than distinctive. Perhaps for this reviewer the critical acclaim for this film following its release earlier this year had generated an expectation which was not realised, but it was clear that last Sunday’s watchful audience found much to enjoy.