Conversations about film
November 28, 2020
35 Shots of Rum
Directed by Claire Denis, 2008
Jim Wilson: Andrew, it’s great to have you back. How’s springtime in New Zealand?
Andrew Hutchinson: Kia ora, Jim, it’s great to be back. I’ve been looking forward to it. Spring is always a lottery here. I’ve woken up today to cold, southerly gales and rain, but at least it’s perfect weather to stay in and chat about film. How are things with you in the States? I hope you’ve been keeping well during these troubled times.
Jim: I’m well. The virus is bad here in Colorado. And, of course, as the world knows, the political situation in the US remains a smoldering mess. But that’s more than I want to say about those horrors, and focus instead on something beautiful, which is the film you’ve brought to discuss. Tell me about how you first discovered it, and why you chose it to talk about.
Andrew: Well I came to it on the back of Claire Denis’ earlier films Chocolat, Beau Travail and Nenette et Boni which all made big impressions on me. Beau Travail in particular is one of my favourite films. I saw 35 Shots of Rum (or 35 Rhums) when it first came out and I remember liking it, but with the passage of time my memory has dulled and so it’s time to dive in again, particularly as I’ve been bingeing on her other films recently. However, another more specific reason I chose it is because it seemed like the perfect next step from our last discussion. As you’ll recall, we did Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, and Claire Denis was his Assistant Director on that film. What’s more, Agnès Godard, who is Denis’ DP on Rhums and many of her other films was also the camera operator on Wings. As much as I love Wenders up to and including Wings of Desire it’s like he passed the baton of exquisite, improvisatory filmmaking to Denis at that point, and she’s gone on to mould it in her own shape and forged a remarkably varied yet characteristic body of poetic cinema, while he’s gone away on extended gardening leave.
I also had a feeling it would be a film that means a lot to you, with what I know of your sensibilities. Am I right?
Jim: You are correct, sir. Claire Denis is my favorite director, and 35 Shots my favorite film of hers, so yeah, I hold it in pretty high regard. I was thrilled when you suggested we talk about it.
So let’s get into it. Where are we and what’s going on as the film opens? Tell me your first impressions.
Andrew: We’re in the front of a train, in the driver’s compartment watching the winding, crisscrossing tracks and passing through a maze of bridges and tunnels. The golden autumn light is leading us into evening. We’re with Lionel (Alex Descas) one of the film’s main characters. He’s a driver on the RER service that takes commuters home to their families in the suburbs after work. The opening is wordless, with gently rolling music, and for me it equates with that feeling of wearied though not unpleasant time cocooned in a commute, caught up in idling thoughts, lost in transit, temporarily separated from the outside world. It’s a beguiling opening to the film because it immediately lulls us into its tender pulse, introducing a mood that is a little bit wistful, but also at peace, and already it is subtly introducing themes and giving us a sense of the reflective nature of Lionel’s character. What did you feel?
Jim: I could watch that opening train sequence once every week for the rest of my life as a kind psychic constitutional. I absolutely love it. I can’t think of any other film that lulls you into it like that. It’s mesmerizing how the interiors of the trains come to life as the sun sets and we see inside the cars, which is mirrored in a subsequent scene by shots of an apartment building at night, all of the windows lit up, each a lens into a life. The film’s central themes of movement (transportation), isolation and interiority, are established, without a word spoken, within the first few minutes of the film.
When Lionel is first introduced, he’s watching the trains before getting on his motorcycle and driving home. He lights a cigarette, takes a couple drags, then drops it on the ground and stamps it out. Godard’s camera, in close-up on his face, pans down to watch him rub out the cigarette with his foot. I’ve often thought it’s an oddly arbitrary motion to follow, since it can be easily implied by his hands and face what he’s doing. This last time, though, I realized that it’s one part of a tiny two-part story about how Lionel starts smoking again. It doesn’t really mean anything, just a personal detail, but it’s how Denis tells stories, or the stories within stories. It’s one little aspect of Lionel’s life that is never addressed, but established, with this, followed by his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) telling him he smells like cigarettes when he gets home, and he responds by saying he started smoking again. By panning down and looking at it, the cigarette is made a subject. From then on, it’s never addressed again. It’s a small, inconsequential example, but Denis is a great master of this, of telling stories with only a few precisely crafted images, and this film remains her crowning achievement of that. I’m sure we’ll cover a few more.
Along with his adult daughter Jo, Lionel enjoys a pleasant life in their little apartment. It’s fun to watch them go about their daily routines, like changing clothes and showering and doing laundry and cooking. Diop as Jo is so nuanced in the way she expresses listening to her father’s movements, of intuiting him in general. The grace and subtlety of everything in this film I’ll rave about again and again, so be prepared!
I guess we have to foreground the rice cooker, or cookers, since they bookend the film, something else I’m sure we’ll get to. Although Jo and Lionel have a nice, unassuming life, there’s a sense that things are…strained? Maybe that things are changing, but being held back. There’s something unresolved, and we’re not sure what it is, and it doesn’t seem like Lionel and Jo know either. It’s hard to say that 35 Shots has much tension, per se, but it does, a little, and we get a hint of it in these early domestic scenes.
Andrew: Ah, the rice cookers, yes, we should probably acknowledge that in those mostly wordless early scenes we observe Jo purchase one. And shortly after that we see Lionel arrive home with a larger, family-sized unit, which Jo proceeds to unpack and use to cook their dinner with. She makes no reference to the one she bought, and nor do we see it again until at the very end in one of the most understated, yet satisfying climaxes to a film that I’ve ever seen. But let’s come back to that later.
It’s interesting you bring up change and tension. Lionel beginning to smoke again is, I think, the first hint of the changes coming. He is starting to look ahead to old age, and this has him ruminating on things that will soon reveal themselves in his relationship with Jo. His decision to start smoking could be seen as symbolic of his determination to move forwards in ways that are not necessarily best for him. And I think the decision to switch to his perspective as he stamps out the cigarette is a subtle way of putting us inside this thoughtful man’s mind as he ponders the changes ahead.
As for tension, well the film internalises it mostly, but in those first interactions between Lionel and Jo when we know nothing about them, I did briefly feel the latent tension of a story about an older man in a romantic relationship with a much younger woman. But then when Jo quietly says “thank you, Daddy”, the nature of their relationship became clear and I felt all hints of tension dissipate leaving the warm glow of a tender father/daughter relationship in its place. It’s an early critical moment that is beautifully underplayed, as it sets the tone for the nature of their easy, powerful intimacy. Unlike in some of Denis’ other films, there is no suggestion of incestuous feelings: these two characters are bound by familial love in its purest, most essential form.
The many scenes between Jo and Lionel are beautiful evocations of the love between a father and daughter. As the father of a 14-year-old girl I can attest to the authenticity of its depiction. Jo is older than my daughter, at about 18 or 20 I would guess. She and Lionel are at ease with each other, trusting and affectionate, sharing a bond that is somehow stronger than any romantic relationship. It is such a lovely and surprisingly rare thing to see in a film.
Mati Diop’s Jo is wonderfully nuanced as you say, but I’m equally fascinated by the character of Lionel. Claire Denis has this knack of showing masculinity’s contradictions. Physically, Lionel is strong and handsome. On his bike he could be a younger man, but in his apartment we can see that his age is beginning to show in the greying of his hair and in his slow and deliberate movements. Yet what strikes me most is that for all his evident strength he is first and foremost a gentle man. His physicality has been subsumed into his care of his daughter, and you can see this in how Jo loves to cuddle up to her Daddy’s muscular body.
We get to spend some quality time with Lionel and Jo watching their rituals of washing, cooking, eating and sharing in the easy silences between their comfortable conversations, but there is a subtle tension waiting outside their doors. Let’s talk about their neighbours.
Jim: Noé and Gabrielle. Both are lovers-in-waiting to Jo and Lionel, respectively, and long frustrated. It’s interesting you bring up incest, since the bond between father and daughter is usually proven unshakeable, though it lacks any perversity. Jo and Lionel seem bound mostly by familial affection and shared loss, an abstraction they both struggle to come to terms with. I think they themselves are always counteracting the perception of being viewed as too close, and that affects how they project their relationship to others, and probably retards their ability to get past it.
Andrew: That’s a nice way of putting it about Noé and Gabrielle, but I see Jo and Lionel’s dynamic a bit differently. They are bound by affection and shared loss as you say, but I don’t think they struggle with that. I think their struggle is the idea of breaking that bond. While it saddens him to his core, Lionel senses that it is nearing the time when Jo must leave him for her own sake. But Jo is definitely not ready to do that: she is still her father’s daughter and doesn’t want to leave him for anyone. “We have everything here. Why go looking elsewhere?” she says to him. What Lionel’s change in perspective does is set up a delicate friction between them that hasn’t been there before, and it also introduces a tantalising counterpoint to the perspectives of Noé and Gabrielle. Lionel and Jo’s bond appears so strong that the others want in. They want to be part of their family at the same time that Lionel is gently challenging Jo to be free of it. But I’m curious about your reading. Tell me more about the way you see it.
Jim: Oh, I completely agree. “Struggle” is too strong a word. I guess I would emphasize “abstraction”, though, that there is something less than tangible about Jo’s attachment to her father, which is probably rooted in the death of her mother. You’re absolutely right that what they struggle with is the thought of not being together, but it’s a different kind of problem for Jo than it is for Lionel. Jo ought to be eager to pursue a romantic relationship, whether with Noé or Ruben or anyone, as most young women like her would, but something is holding her back; something has distorted that drive in her. The “Nightshift” scene speaks a lot to this, as it does to almost everything about this film, but let’s hold back on that for the moment.
Let’s talk more about Gabrielle and Noé, performed, we should point out, by Nicole Dogué and Denis regular Grégoire Colin, respectively. Both are residents of the same apartment building as Jo and Lionel, and comprise their informal family. In another instance of Denis’ concentrated minimalism, the longing they both feel about being more a part of Jo’s and Lionel’s life is captured in a few silent scenes of them both waiting outside their apartment, both clearly imagining what must be going on inside Jo’s and Lionel’s home, or imagining themselves being a part of it. Noé stares intently at their door, while Gabrielle hangs out on the stairs, smoking. Noé is more openly welcomed, while Gabrielle is shunned. I suspect this mostly has to do with her explicit desire to stand in for their lost mother and wife, though she never seems discouraged. Gabrielle is a really special character, so full of love and an almost saintly patience and generosity of spirit. And yet, like everyone in this story, she is profoundly lonesome, another isolated soul in her single window frame. How do you see the way Gabrielle and Noé play in the lives of the father-daughter pair they so yearn to be closer with?
Andrew: They bring an intriguing complexity to the notion of family. Jo and Lionel are the nucleus but Gabrielle and Noé are in differing respects part of their orbit. They both want in, in differing ways, and to an extent they are both accepted, or at least tolerated, but they are not embraced. Lionel resists Gabrielle’s desire to resume her past role as his lover and surrogate mother for Jo, and similarly Jo isn’t interested in her as a maternal figure. Jo is clearly fond of Noé, but they seem more like brother and sister. Their rejected attempts to intrude into Jo and Lionel’s nucleus echoes a common theme in Claire Denis’ work, but here it is a little different. I think the main difference is that Jo and Lionel do accept the others as part of their extended family, but their intimate bond is so resolute that there is no way of getting close. So what we get is a gradual, subtle, unpicking of the bond, opening the possibility of the others to enter or for Jo to leave.
Gabrielle and Noé are profoundly lonely. They gaze longingly at Lionel and Jo’s apartment. While Lionel enjoys a community with his fellow train drivers, Gabrielle works alone in her taxi. She claims to love the variety of her job, but the longing and sadness that emanates from her expressive face suggests she wants the opposite – to resume her much missed role at the centre of the close-knit family unit. She’s a consistent and patient presence, ever hopeful and positive despite her evident loneliness, with an enormous capacity for love that is being sadly unfulfilled. Where Gabrielle has a potentially stabilising influence, Noé is more of a wild card. He’s restless, even reckless. His idea of flirting includes jumping into the river while he’s out on an early morning jog with Jo. He lacks roots and clearly wants Jo’s attention, but he feigns disaffection. Like Gabrielle he lives alone in an apartment upstairs from Jo and Lionel. He claims his old cat is the only reason he doesn’t just pack up and leave, but of course the real reason he remains is his longing to be with Jo.
Both Nicole Dogué and Grégoire Colin are wonderful in their pivotal supporting roles. They both have tremendous screen presence, which is perhaps most surprising with Dogué who is almost exclusively a theatre actor. Colin has an ambiguous ethnicity and it’s partly this otherness that helps accentuate the threat he poses to Jo and Lionel’s close bond. Noé mostly gets about with a sullen intensity. He’s a bit too cool for school, a bit of a slob, handsome and vain, and yet beneath all his persona, he’s not able to fully disguise his feelings for Jo. As with Descas’ but in different ways, Colin does a great job in balancing masculine virility with subtle emotional vulnerability.
Jim: It’s a great cast, with some others I’d like to get to, particularly Julieth Mars Toussaint, who plays René, Lionel’s friend and fellow train operator. His part of the story seems, at first, to be pretty significant, since it’s his retirement that sets the melancholic tone that permeates the entire film. Every time I watch 35 Shots, I’m struck by how Lionel doesn’t see the clear signs of his friend’s deep depression, or he does, but doesn’t know how to respond. Granted, they are proud men of a generation not accustomed to emotional transparency. René is never anything but dour, perpetually forlorn at being put out to pasture, while he’s still, as he says, “strong as an ox.” Though Toissaint plays him wonderfully, I do wonder about his character and its utility to the story. He’s the most tragic of all the isolated souls that populate the film, but is he mostly a lens through which we observe Lionel? How do you think René’s role in his life shapes Lionel? We can spoil here. Collokino is always a huge spoiler. René does stuff like return borrowed items to friends, then kills himself, by lying down on the same tracks he’s been driving over his whole career. I know how I think of him, and his friendship with Lionel, but I’m genuinely interested in hearing your take on René, and why you think Lionel responds to him the way he does?
Andrew: I was wondering what your attitude would be to revealing René’s suicide because whilst its handling is characteristically understated, it is nevertheless a genuine pivot point in the film because of the impact it has on Lionel. In the lead up to that point we’ve spent a number of scenes hanging out with Lionel and René and in each of them Lionel is supportive and friendly, but always reserved. My reading is that Lionel sees his own future in René’s predicament, and he is saddened by it. He isn’t able to help René enough because he doesn’t have the answers himself. To get specific, René’s retirement deprives him of his life’s purpose through work and the tight-knit community of his colleagues. I could sense Lionel weighing up this loss in his own mind, wondering if he’ll be able to deal with it any better when his time comes. He is also approaching the age of retirement, so these concerns are very real. But in addition to that he is also conscious of the approaching time when he will lose his daughter to independent adult life and with it his sense of family and his domestic life’s purpose of nurturing Jo that he has valued for many years. So he has an awful lot to reflect on. One of the many things I admire about 35 Rhums is that none of this is really spelt out. I’d say it is more felt or intuited through an exquisite focus on body language and symbolism. The film is very autumnal, dealing with deeply melancholic, life changing circumstances, and yet for the most part it does it lightly and introspectively.
I say for the most part because I think the film isn’t entirely successful in its handling of René’s character. You’ve already pointed out that he is used mainly as a lens through which to observe Lionel, and this works well as far as helping us better understand Alex Descas’ largely silent character. But I can’t help feeling that Renés character is a bit underwritten. I don’t mind the metaphor of a driver becoming a passenger in life, as it isn’t laid on too thick, but I do think his suicide ruptured the film’s more intimate tensions and in doing so temporarily broke its spell. I don’t want to overstate this criticism as Toissant plays René sensitively, which helps keep what would have been sensational in most other films comparably downbeat in this. And I certainly don’t deny the emotional and narrative logic to the sequence of events leading up to René’s suicide and then, through Lionel’s reaction to it, how it ripples out into the lives of the three other main characters. But there is something about using René’s suicide as a crucial plot point that I feel stands out as slightly contrived when placed next to the film’s richer subtleties. It sounds like you’ve given René’s character and his relationship to Lionel a fair bit of thought, so I’m really interested to know your views.
Jim: I completely agree. René is a device, and probably the film’s weakest element. Suicide is overused in French cinema, in my opinion, as an easy (over) expression of emotional torment. Maybe that’s why Denis seems to ultimately downplay it. The train track suicide scene is exceedingly maudlin. The more I think on it, the more I wish the Rene bit weren’t a part of the film. The pathos of the central four characters is enough without it.
So let’s move on to the film’s central act, when Jo, Lionel, Gabrielle and Noé go to a concert together. By then, we’ve learned about another hopeful suitor of Jo’s, though he’s thoroughly dejected, his corsage literally flattened beneath Noé’s ass. Gabrielle’s car breaks down and they never make it to the concert, but end up having a pretty memorable experience at a random restaurant, whose generous owner lets them in after hours, and provides food, warmth and space for them to retrieve their disrupted evening. Generally referred to as the “Nightshift” scene, because of the Commodores song that scores its central action, it’s classic Denis/Godard sensuality and emotive nuance.
When we first discussed talking about 35 Shots, I said I thought it might be difficult to put words to it, to a film so much about intuition. So far, I think we’ve done well to assign effective words to a mostly wordless film, but the “Nightshift” scene is a unique challenge. So many things are expressed there, and a lot of things felt, by both the characters and the viewer. Wanna try navigating it?
Andrew: I’ll give it a shot! The “Nightshift” scene, and the sequences on either side of it, arguably make up the key section in the entire film. It starts with the four characters coming together as an extended family for the first time, but it ends the following morning with them split four ways. As they’re driving to the concert, Gabrielle is all smiles. She’s exactly where she wants to be. She happily proclaims “we haven’t been out as a family for ages”, but then moments later, as if she’s tempted fate, her taxi breaks down and they’re stranded in the rain, bickering like a real family.
They gratefully escape the downpour into the warm welcome of the restaurant, determined to make something of their evening. As the smooth music plays, Jo and Noé are rooted to their chairs, but with the ease of old lovers Lionel and Gabrielle take to the dance floor. It’s the first part of a wordless narrative that is all about Denis and Godard’s eye for the language of bodies. While Gabrielle is cuddling in tight to Lionel, he remains all eyes for Jo; and as soon as the song ends he invites her up to dance with him, as if he couldn’t wait. Their brief number is a close dance of two people so comfortable together they might as well be one. But it is soon interrupted by Noé who muscles in on their relaxed embrace. His resulting dance with Jo becomes an erotically charged game of cat and mouse. Lionel withdraws to the bar and watches on anxiously. But Noé the cat doesn’t get Jo the mouse. She rejects his attempt to forcibly kiss her, and she breaks abruptly from the dance, pulling him despondently to the side of the room to sit down across from each other in abject silence. And then the dynamic changes again. Now Lionel, who has previously caught the eye of the beautiful owner of the bar, now catches her sleeve, and they enjoy a sensuous dance to Gabrielle’s evident dismay, and you sense also to Jo’s. For Lionel in this moment I got a taste of his bittersweet pleasure – of his joy at still being able to attract a beautiful woman, but for how much longer? There’s sadness to his prowess, as if this could be the last time. And so it ends and they leave the makeshift party, emotionally fractured, and trapped in their individual concerns. They take the train for their early commute home, reflecting sadly on the night and the relationships that somehow got away from them.
This new tension spills into the morning after. Lionel leaves them to lick their wounds in Noé’s apartment, each nursing a humanising coffee. Noé, the cool cat from the previous night’s dance, who lost his mouse, now discovers his real cat has finally passed away of old age. He unceremoniously picks it up by the scruff of its neck and deposits it into a garbage bag along with its toys while Jo looks on appalled. He is showing his disdain for sentiment after a night of hurt, and it’s hard not to feel that symbolically he is disposing of more than just his cat. You sense he’s also dumping what remains of his ties to his apartment and in effect to his hopes for Jo. And sure enough he announces that he’s going to pack up his things and leave for a job overseas. Jo, who’s stable world seems to be crumbling beneath her, unhappily asks him, “you’ll ditch us and go away?” His answer speaks to the evidence of the night before, but also, perhaps as a final challenge to her: “why not?”
The scene that follows sees Jo back in her apartment taking to the housework as if in a fury. It’s like she’s forcibly reasserting the stability of her role as Lionel’s daughter/partner. But we sense now that the dynamics have irrevocably changed: Lionel comes home and is unhappy about her playing maid, and then when he catches her rummaging through his personal things, he snaps at her, which after the softness of their love seems like a cataclysm. Later, she privately reads a note that she smuggled from his things. It reads like a love letter from her mum speaking about how happy she is caring for their little Jo, but it turns out to be from Gabrielle, pleading for Lionel to let her permanently into their lives. It makes for a delicately judged and profoundly poignant moment on numerous counts. Firstly, because it gives words to the unfulfilled capacity of Gabrielle’s love that up until that point we’ve only sensed in observing her affection towards Jo and Lionel. Secondly, because it hints that Lionel may still have feelings for her, having kept her note in amongst his precious things. And finally, because it pinpoints the unspoken void in Jo’s life that you sense has driven her to be especially close to her father, and that is perhaps now preventing her from moving on with her own life.
How’s that for a navigation, Jim? I should say that the whole extended section I’ve attempted to describe is beautifully filmed and sensitively acted, and amounts to a masterclass in show don’t tell filmmaking. Denis’ ability to find meaning in movement and non-verbal language is one of her unique talents. This scene reminds me of other examples from many of her films, including perhaps most memorably the use of dance and movement in U.S. Go Home and Beau Travail. But what have I missed? What struck you most about this section and its importance to the film as a whole?
Jim: I think it’s important to point out that when they first seek shelter from the rain after Gabrielle’s car breaks down, the restaurant they go into is open, but when they return to it after dealing with the tow truck, it’s closed. The owner’s nephew refuses them entry, but eventually the owner comes to the door and lets them in. I should pause to mention that the woman who owns the restaurant/bar is played by Adèle Ado, whose beauty is so radiant it’s not hard to understand why Lionel is immediately drawn to her. She really is stunning, like some celestial creature come down to rescue their ruined evening. And not only does she let them in, she prepares a meal for them, as well. She supplies towels for them to dry off, and generally goes out of her way to make a pleasant experience for these strangers in the middle of the night.
For me, that stands in stark contrast to the petty jealousies and tender feelings of Lionel, Gabrielle, Jo and Noé, who really do act like a bunch of pouty, petulant children, once again recycling all the same little hurts they’ve been nursing for years, when they could just be enjoying the warm glow of this woman’s generosity. The “Nightshift” scene casts a bright and unforgiving light on the emotional immaturity these characters we otherwise generally like are capable of, which speaks directly to the consequences of their stuck lives, and their unwillingness to move on from past traumas and frustrated desires. Now, that said, I am by no means suggesting that Denis is judging her characters, not at all, but she’s also not shielding them from scrutiny. Like all people, they’re each a complex blend of features and factors, and the “Nightshift” scene makes that abundantly clear. These folks are not only stuck in their tired stations in life, but stuck in themselves.
There is something we haven’t approached about the film yet, and I’m still undecided about its relevance. 35 Shots of Rum takes place within a predominantly Black – African and West Indian – community in suburban Paris. With a few rare exceptions, including Noé, all the characters are Black. I’ve considered it repeatedly, and am mostly of the opinion that it doesn’t carry a great deal of meaning, but I welcome other interpretations. Black characters and communities are commonplace in Denis films, so I see it mostly in that light. She often centers the immigrant experience in her films, and the broader topic of the consequences of colonialism, but I don’t get that vibe here. What are your thoughts?
Andrew: It’s a good point you make about the selfishness of the quartet in the face of the restaurateur’s generosity. I find all four of the characters immensely sympathetic, but in that scene they really do retreat into their own stuck lives and fail to respect the kindness they encounter from a complete stranger.
As for your question about the significance of race and culture, I suspect there is quite a bit going on but it is less overt and possibly less important than in many of Denis’ other films. There are some early scenes that show Jo’s hesitancy in class discussing the concept of debts descended from slavery. I couldn’t get a strong reading on the relevance of this, but I do have a few thoughts. The first is that Jo, as an apparently mixed-race woman, with German and Caribbean heritage could be said to have a foot in both camps of the white/black and debtor/creditor dichotomies. She seems uncomfortable when some of her fellow students mobilise for a strike, claiming “we revolt because we can no longer breathe”. Breathlessness doesn’t seem to be her experience, protected as she has been by her Daddy. A student explains to her that their college is “closing anthropology (because) they say it has no purpose”, and what I find interesting is her ambivalence towards all the political overtones this contains. But these scenes don’t form clear threads that develop cohesively through the remainder of the plot. For me they act more like background textures, providing the macro backdrop to the micro lives at the centre of the frame.
What strikes me about all four characters is that while they appear to varying extents to be the products of immigration, and are likely to have been marginalised as a result, they don’t appear to be making active choices to oppose their station. Their reaction appears to have been to assimilate into a mostly black and working-class community. Perhaps the point is that their marginalisation propels them inward to find identity in their family and close community unit, rather than in anything approaching an outward facing national identity. Perhaps, but I’m really not sure. What I am sure about is the scenario’s universal humanism. In making this film Claire Denis borrowed heavily from the Japanese director, Yasuhiro Ozu’s, 1949 classic, Late Spring. She transports that story about Japanese tradition in a post-war environment seamlessly into an African/Caribbean community living outside Paris in the early 21st century, and more than ten years later I’m still feeling the emotional beats loud and clear in my own relatively comfortable life in New Zealand. People grow up and they grow old, and it is never easy.
To briefly sidetrack, you’ve seen a lot of Denis’ films. How do you position 35 Rhums within her wider body of work? Is it core, or is it more of an outlier? Does it break new ground or does it consolidate her preoccupations?
Jim: Sure, but first, I’ve heard 35 Shots compared to Ozu often, but I haven’t seen any of his films, so I can’t speak to the comparison. Furthermore, on the racial stuff, I take your points about the class discussion about the global south, Jo’s mixed heritage, and so on, but it never feels like Denis is raising any of it to the point where it leaves much of an impression on the characters’ lives. I do think you’re onto something about the immigrant community compelling the characters to look inward, to stay inside their safe lanes, except that Denis never really contrasts that world with a larger one outside of it, so it seems inert.
I think of Denis films in maybe three loosely defined categories. 35 Shots belongs to a group of her films like Nenette et Boni and Vendredi soir, maybe even US Go Home, that are generally quiet, intimate films about people living their lives. Their scopes are narrow and the general idea is to capture something subtle and elemental that changes in the characters’ lives because of some little event. Then there’s the more racially charged, anxious films about the immigrant experience, or colonialism, like I Can’t Sleep, No Fear, No Die, Chocolat and White Material. They’re the Denis films with the clear social and political outlooks. Then there’s the weird, fantastical, dreamy things, like Trouble Every Day, L’intrus, Bastards and High Life, all of which are wonderfully dark. And then there’s the oddballs, like Let the Sunshine In, which is as close as Denis may ever get to a rom-com, and Beau Travail, which stands entirely on its own. So, to answer your question, I think 35 Shots is very core, very foundational for Denis, though it was the last of that strain. So maybe I see 35 Shots as the maturation of a style that Denis started developing earlier in her career. I’d love to see her return to it, and maybe her newest announced film with Binoche and Lindon might fall in that range. The other new one, with Pattinson and Qualley, sounds like it’s more of the socio-political sort. But we’ll see. I’m always available for whatever Claire Denis brings.
Did you want to talk more about episodes in the film, or some more broadly stylistic elements? There is the trip to Germany that Jo and Lionel take, which contains some of the most bizarre moments in the film. Or the whole 35 shots of rum ritual, about which I think most viewers can echo Gabrielle’s bewilderment.
Andrew: Right, stepping back into the story then, the trip to Germany that you mention follows immediately from the end of the “Nightshift” sequence I described before. From reading Gabrielle’s note we cut to Jo and Lionel driving in his van towards Germany. The ellipsis between the scenes suggests the note has got Jo thinking about her mother, and the trip to Germany turns into something of a pilgrimage for the two of them.
At first it is unclear what they are doing. They arrive at a house to have coffee and wine with a white German woman and her daughter of a similar age to Jo. The woman turns out to be Jo’s aunt, as in the sister of Lionel’s deceased wife. This is disorienting at first because of the racial contrast, but then you realise that Jo must be of mixed race origin, and it clicks into place. I love how matter of fact this is – it is a reveal that just happens without dramatic emphasis, as if to imply it is of no consequence. The conversation that follows mostly involves Jo’s aunt reminiscing, with Jo and Lionel politely listening in. At one point her aunt says “sometimes it seems the whole world is scared of suffering”, and this strikes me as significant in tying together some of the loose threads in the film. Up until now Jo has felt that she and her Dad could carry on living their peaceful, happy, little lives insulated from hard realities, like those she’s glimpsed through her studies, or the complications of Noé’s romantic interest in her, or the grief of losing her mum. And Lionel is much the same. He too has withdrawn into a comfortable routine of raising his daughter, hanging out in a small community of people like him (not crossing racial barriers), and all the while insulated from the world from the safety of his apartment or his train compartment. But with René’s retirement and suicide, and the tensions of the “Nightshift” sequence, and all the thoughts and emotions they have stirred, it seems like Jo and Lionel’s defences have been breached. And the rupture has exposed their shared grief at the heart of their withdrawal, and finally given them the impetus to face up to it.
After the conversation with her aunt, Jo and Lionel go and tend her mum’s grave. And from there, they set up camp by the sea where her mum may have once drowned. The scenes have an elegiac feel to them, under autumn skies with numerous cutaways to nature and to a children’s lantern festival. It feels loose and improvisatory, and yet the emotional current of the scenes is very strong, suggesting a deep healing process that is finally setting them on a different and necessary track.
You mentioned this sequence contains some bizarre moments. How did you see it?
Jim: Well, the whole thing is rather strange, but I completely agree, it’s beautifully played in Denis’ trademark underhanded way. If you pay attention to the highway signs, you ‘ll see they’re headed to Lübeck, in the north of Germany, near the Baltic coast. Tante, played by Ingrid Caven, is a wonderfully eccentric woman, who chases coffee with wine and reminisces about old beach trips. But she’s a philosopher, too, and delivers some of the film’s best wisdom nuggets, as you point out.
When I say it’s bizarre, I mean it in a good way, meaning the kind of bizarre that anyone knows from visiting relatives in distant places, and the sense of dislocation that can bring. The wordless wisp of a cousin, the languorous aunt and her cushions, the children with the lanterns that drift through like extras from another movie, it’s what traveling can be like. It’s a great little sequence that’s entirely, deliberately disorienting. It might well pass for my favorite part of the film.
Andrew: Yes, for me it feels like all the unspoken tensions are being gently released. The rhythm of the editing shifts and Godard’s camera becomes more poetic, and there are more grace notes to the story. In short, Jo and her Dad allow the outside world to come in. They are as loving as ever but there’s a new understanding between them. This trip is the step they needed to remain close and become independent.
The film kind of floats towards its ending. There’s a lyrical lightness and surprising speed in the way things resolve. I could imagine some people being disappointed by the apparent looseness and anti-climactic nature of the ending, but I love it. It’s as if Jo’s been freed to love someone else, and you see her getting ready for what could be her wedding to Noé. Passages of time elide into moments, and before we know it we are with Lionel at the bar committing to mark Jo’s farewell with the mysterious tradition of downing 35 shots of rum. He had earlier rejected the ritual after René’s passing, because he had decided to save it for the time when Jo would leave him. It is unclear whether the act is to honour the milestone or whether he is drowning his sorrows, but I sense it might be a mix of both.
Which leads us to the film’s final scene and the return of the rice cooker…
Jim: I like that you say it “could be” her wedding to Noé. Of course, that has to be what it is, what everyone’s getting dressed up for, but probably just a quick wedding in front of a judge, or however that’s done in France. Jo wears a formal dress and white gloves, but hardly a wedding dress. We never see a ceremony. All we see of Noé is him dressed formally, but not yet buttoned up, standing forlornly in his same place in the apartment building hallway, looking at Jo’s door. And then we’re back at the bar from the beginning drinking rum. Granted, Denis can elide like no other, but that’s about as close to nothing as you can get. In the bar, we see Lionel and Gabrielle and some of his work buddies, but Jo and Noé are nowhere to be seen. The point is clear enough. After the wedding, the people left in Lionel’s life are who we see at the bar. To be honest, the first couple times I watched 35 Shots, I had no idea what that whole part was about, but it didn’t hurt my love for the film, since its conclusion is clear enough. Lionel is alone, with Gabrielle still keeping a candle lit by his side.
The rice cookers. The final shot is of Lionel unboxing the cooker that Jo buys in the beginning, a smaller capacity cooker than the larger one Lionel brought home, which stands next to it on the countertop. Did she buy that one and stash it away, as we watched her doing at the beginning, knowing that her Dad would use it once she moved out? Using a domestic kitchen item to denote the change in Lionel’s life is a beautiful touch, since domesticity and the preparation of meals is so central to the way we the audience connect with these characters during the film, and the way that cooking and eating represents one of the most basic bonds members of a family share. It’s a lovely ending to a lovely film.
Andrew: It sure is a lovely film. I like the understatement of its climaxes, its reliance on body language to help propel the narrative, and the detail it paints with its poetic focus on mundane things like everyday objects and the rituals of domestic life. It is unusually gentle and intimate, and yet it manages to explore some fairly heavy themes such as growing up, growing old, grief and loneliness. And while Ozu has charted a similar course before, what Denis does differently, I think, is apply a highly subjective lens. Where Ozu’s lens was typically static, distanced and lingering, Denis brings us close, with an acute eye for how her characters’ emotional lives are expressed through their bodies. That “Nightshift” sequence, for example, is a world away from Ozu.
What’s your take on the film language Denis and her crew employ? That combination of Agnès Godard’s sensuous cinematography, Tindersticks’ sympathetic score and Denis’ elliptical editing is quite unlike anything else in modern cinema, don’t you think?
Jim: I don’t think I could say it better, my friend. The “up-closeness” of the Denis-Godard vision is what seized my attention when I first witnessed it in Trouble Every Day. The primacy of bodies, of skin and the contours of muscle and bone, of the slightest shifts in countenance, defines Denis’ visual style. It can be sexual, but more often, as in 35 Shots, it’s just affectionate, if not a little doting. Her subjectiveness, as you say, thrills me, as it derives directly from the cinematic language of Chantal Akerman, who was always monitoring that tricky boundary between subject and object.
So, let’s wrap up the conversation with my new ending feature called “Reverbs”. Tell me about something that’s been tumbling around in your thoughts lately.
Andrew: Well, the film can take some responsibility for this, but I’ve been thinking a lot about my children and my changing relationships with them. My son is now in his final week of high school exams and then he will start to think about which of his various options he pursues in the next stage of life. Like Lionel, I’m a bit melancholy about the effect my child’s moving on will have on my relationship with him but I’m also experiencing a deep contentment reflecting on how well he is doing. And then there is my daughter I mentioned briefly before. She lives in Australia with her mum, and with this year of lockdowns and travel restrictions it means I’ve not been able to be with her. However, I am now booked to visit and I am as excited as a puppy. Seeing the closeness of the bond between Lionel and Jo has heightened my already febrile anticipation of resuming my own with my daughter.
What about you Jim? What’s on your mind?
Jim: That’s great about visiting your daughter. And don’t worry about your son. After all, Andrew, he’ll always have you.
What’s been reverberating with me lately is precisely this, meaning this thing, Collokino. I’ve been inviting and lining up new guests, trying to upgrade the blog, and thinking about other improvements. The enthusiasm of all who’ve participated amazes me, as I am humbled by the intelligence you all bring to discussing these great films. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned. In the coming months, I’m hosting a bunch of new guests, some or all of whom you’ll recognize from Letterboxd. It keeps me busy. So cheers, santé, prost, skål. You’re all the best.
Thanks for another great conversation about another great film, Andrew. I’m sure we’ll do it again.
Andrew: It’s been a joy exploring this lovely film with you, Jim. You’re doing a great service through these Collokinos and I look forward to checking out your blog’s future developments and guests in the weeks and months ahead. Ngā mihi nui.
Jim: Lastly, watch this space in a couple weeks for my talk with Kentucky lovebirds cuckoochanel and Richard Chandler about Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 masterstroke La Haine. Thanks for reading!