Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau
Starring: Mati Diop, Alex Descas, Grégoire Colin, Nicole Dogue, Eriq Ebouaney
Tragedy can be a double-edged sword, where it brings an immense amount of pain closely followed by a new outlook on life for those who survive it. This meditation on the relationship between a father and daughter develops into something incredibly beautiful as it reflects on where they’ve been and what needs to happen for them to fully live life.
Working as a train conductor in Paris, Lionel (Alex Descas) lives with his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) as they continue life after losing their wife/mother. Lionel lives a simple life of routine through his profession while Josephine attends university as an anthropology student. They both receive affection from different neighbors, who they mostly ignore. As they progress through each day, the underlying feeling of change being on the horizon emerges in their conversations.
The emotional center and pull of this film lies in the father-daughter relationship between Lionel and Josephine. A nurturing and sweet relationship that allows them to come together after losing someone dear to them. They live a perfectly content life but know their current configuration cannot last forever. Seeing each other every day provides a warmth taken away from them upon the passing of the mother. That connection between the father and daughter became slightly weak and they attempt to keep it strong even when it may be necessary to live different lives. It begins their separation not in a way that damages their foundation, but a necessary step for them to continue a flourishing life. That adds to the film’s beauty because it does not rely on any swells or melodrama to create a deeply emotional experience where many of the messages are implied and deeply effective. Events simply transpire and each of the characters just goes through the motions of life.
Through this work, Claire Denis creates her most emotionally empathic film and a story that may be more straight-forward than what she typically provides. Denis knows exactly how to tell this story and does not need to spoon-feed information or moments to the audience, as we must mature just like the characters. A gorgeous and subtle piece of work results in being more emotionally sensitive than what I would expect from the famous French director. She conveys the emotions through her camera movements as it indicates the character’s motivations. Denis allows the audience to see themselves in these two characters as we can relate to being in a similar situation as Lionel and Josephine. Whether it be fighting through grief or knowing when to make the major decisions to move forward in life. As nice as it may be to be established in a comfortable place in life, humans need to continually stretch themselves, live freely, and find love in whatever fashion they want. Denis gets tremendous performances out her cast and they each brought something meaningful to their role.
Alex Descas portrays Lionel and puts together a notable and nuanced performance with only allowing the audience to see bits and pieces of his life. Lionel needs to make some tough decisions in life, as retirement nears and his future remains to be a cloud of uncertainty. His struggle follows his inability or unwillingness to complete the tradition alluded to in the title of the film. Mati Diop as Josephine shows the growing pains of life and the reality of being her own person in the world. Her character has plenty of emotion but remains restrained at the same time. It shows her incredible skill as an actor the same way she superbly directed her first feature in Atlantics. Both of them convey so much by doing very little, which indicates the highest level of acting in my mind. The father-daughter relationship must work for the resonance of the story to unfold and this acting duo succeeds in their roles.
With pain comes recovery and these two individuals find comfort with each other and the important decisions they must make to move forward. Incredibly effective and moving with the struggles the characters must endure. 35 Shots of Rum has a very moody story, but it utilizes its emotions to push these characters past their comfort zone and take on life in a way they could never imagine before.