I decided to go and see 35 Shots of Rum on Thursday at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I had no idea the director, Claire Denis, was going to be there to do a Q&A. What I’ve written isn’t exactly a review, I’ve tried to include as much as I can remember of the interview, however, I have left bits out, such as when she started talking about how they sedated the stunt cat and gave it a makeover…
35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums)
Dressed in a biker jacket Claire Denis growls before the screening that she will attempt 35 whiskys in order to be less hoarse before the Q&A . Given that 35 Rhums is an open-ended and fairly ambiguous film, to have Claire Denis present, no matter hoarse, to demystify aspects of it was almost a relief. She explained that she set out to portray the perfect father-daughter relationship. She was inspired by her own family, her mother talked openly of how faultless her own father was in the presence of her husband. Denis wanted to explore the notion of this flawless relationship before she even considered film-making; she had doubts whether something so intimate could translate onto the screen. Others might say that Denis’ attentiveness and delicate touch make her the ideal director for such an undertaking.
Lionel (Alex Descas) is train-driver and single father, his wife died when Joséphine (Mati Diop) was a baby. They live and care for one another in their small flat, there is a closeness between them and their neighbours that extends far beyond a sense of community. Later Joséphine finds a letter from Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) to Lionel asking that she look after Joséphine as though she were her own. Her attraction to Lionel is apparent but so is her devotion and affection for Joséphine. One of the early scenes of the film features Gabrielle trying to cajole Josephine into having dinner with her, Josephine declines with polite weariness; she appreciates how much Gabrielle cares for her, but she does not want a substitute mother. Her bond with her father is such that she does not feel the need for another parent.
Perhaps what it most striking about the film is the physical closeness between Lionel and his daughter, Joséphine kisses him with a spontaneity more often associated with an uninhibited child rather than the awkwardness that marks adolescence. They make sure to eat meals together and try to hide things that may upset one another. Lionel is a quiet but not distant father. He seems to take Joséphine’s maturation in his thoughtful stride. Their interactions are very naturalistic, Mati Diop is a film student and never aspired to an acting career, Denis spotted her in a class she was teaching and knew she had the face she wanted. Alex Descas is a particular favourite of Denis and has starred in several of her films. Joséphine’s neighbour and love interest, Noé, was another unknown. Although much of the film is true to the original script, Denis relied upon chemistry between the actors and often limited the number of takes so that nothing was too rehearsed.
In such a meditative film it is hard to speak of something as brutal as a climax but arguably it occurs after Gabrielle’s taxi breaks down on the way to a concert. She, Joséphine, Lionel and Noé are stranded in the pouring rain and have to persuade the owners of a local bar to open up until they can find a way home. What ensues is the discreet unravelling of all the sexual tensions present between the characters. Noé has been smouldering since finding flowers given to Joséphine from a fellow student who asked her to the concert. Gabrielle’s low-backed dress has provided Lionel with ample view of her smooth shoulders. The bar-owners provide food, rum and music. Denis has often collaborated in the past to great effect with Tindersticks (think of Stuart Staple’s haunting vocal on 2001 gorefest Trouble Everyday) however on this occasion she opted for ‘Night Shift’ by The Commodores to underpin the atmosphere of longing, seduction and anticipation prevalent in the scene, hinting that the song had a special significance in her own life.
Gabrielle and Lionel dance with the confidence and deference of those who have loved before. Noé and Joséphine have the tension of two people who have long anticipated such a liasion but when Noé ventures a kiss Joséphine is shocked and fearful but submits. The delay is prompted by the remembered presence of her father. It is apparent that father and daughter are happiest when dancing together.
The ending is oblique yet happy, Joséphine marries Noé, symbolically refusing the help of Gabrielle when getting ready and then stands before Lionel in her dress, eager for his approval. However for those disposed towards cinematic imagery, there is little more to be interpreted from symbolism. Denis flatly denies there is any implicit message in the fact two of the main characters drive passengers to their chosen destinations for a living. She claims she admires the camaraderie of train-drivers and the patter of cabbies. And as for the reference to ‘35 rhums’, that’s just “une vieille histoire”.