Exquisite, intoxicating Paris poetry

Posted: December 04, 2009

The title of Claire Denis' beautifully observed 35 Shots of Rum is never fully explained, but that's part of the quiet mystery, and majesty, of this elliptical portrait of a group of French Africans living on the outskirts of Paris. There's a story to be told about drinking down the 35 consecutive glasses, but Lionel (Alex Descas), the taciturn train conductor who is one of Denis' central characters, never quite gets around to it.

Wrapped in gentle melancholy, and featuring long, wordless passages as people ride trains, cook meals, and motorbike through the Paris night, 35 Shots of Rum is visual poetry, but poetry that examines the human condition with insight and illumination.

Lionel lives in a suburban high-rise with his daughter, Jo (Mati Diop), a university student who works at night at a music shop. Their relationship is close, but the absence of a mother, a wife - an absence that isn't explained until the film's final, peripatetic scenes - looms large, unsettlingly.

What happens in 35 Shots of Rum? A coworker retires from his job. A neighbor goes out of town and leaves a window open, clanking in the wind. A car breaks down as Lionel, Jo, the cabdriver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) - Lionel's ex - and Jo's sort of boyfriend, Noe (Gregoire Colin), head for a concert.

They don't make it. It's pouring. And so, instead, they find refuge in a small restaurant, where they eat warm food, drink wine and coffee, and dance to Marvin Gaye.

In snatches of conversation, in fleeting sequences that can evoke a mood or define a relationship, 35 Shots of Rum says more about longing - longing for love, for connection, for meaning and fulfillment - than do vastly more ambitious, extravagant dramas.

Denis is a minimalist, but a minimalist with a big heart, a big soul. Her 35 Shots of Rum is nothing less than exquisite.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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