French director Claire Denis doesn't force anything or deal in formula narratives. She makes ravishingly beautiful movies that operate on mood and atmosphere, counting on audiences to somehow intuit the connections she's making and to sense what's going on inside the heads of her characters—or to relish the tantalizing impossibility of knowing for sure. Since making her debut 20 years ago with Chocolat (not the Juliette Binoche film), Denis has become one of the most admired and revered figures in international film for her refusal to spoon-feed audiences—and also because she always provides a sensual feast for the eyes, usually with a cast of impossibly gorgeous performers whose faces and bodies her camera laps up like melted butter.
Yet while watching a film like Beau Travail, Denis's acclaimed transposition of Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor to a French Foreign Legion post in Africa, it's possible to admire her poetic, potent evocation of heat and homoerotic lust and still feel that you'd gladly trade a little beauty for less opaque storytelling. Denis is considered a radical filmmaker by many of her fans, and her approach can be most satisfying when there's some transgressive element to shake things up a little, as in I Can't Sleep and the gory Trouble Every Day. In her previous film, L'Intrus, she got a little too comfortable, serving up one masterful image after another but permitting the movie to meander into blithe incoherence. With her new 35 Shots of Rum, she returns to form—but she may still reside a little too snugly inside her comfort zone.
35 Shots, which Denis co-wrote with her usual screenwriting partner Jean-Pol Fargeau, stars Alex Descas as Lionel, a middle-aged (but still devastatingly handsome) Metro rail conductor who lives in a Paris housing project with his (stunning) daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), a student in her late 20s. The main drama stems from Lionel's feeling that his daughter's loving devotion to him is eating into her chances of ever having her own full life. Gently, he prods her to consider leaving the nest, mostly by throwing her soulful, concerned looks. Other characters also inhabit the housing project, including Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a warm cab driver with a long-standing crush on Lionel, and Noé (Grégoire Colin), a messy-haired dude, slinky but approachable, who may be the next big thing in Joséphine's life.
That the central characters are black, and that this goes unremarked upon, is a nice, unstressed way to point out how France in general—and the Paris we see in movies in particular—has changed since Jean Gabin's day. In Joséphine's classroom, people may still grapple with colonialism and the anti-colonial ideas of Frantz Fanon, but in the movie's context these scenes seem almost ironic. Denis may be tipping off viewers that even if she soft-pedals the political implications of making a movie about these characters in this setting, she's still well aware of them.
Shot by Agnès Godard and scored by Tindersticks, both frequent collaborators with the director, 35 Shots has a rich beauty that's always dreamy and sometimes a little creamy. Denis' technique hits its peak in a sequence where the characters hole up in a restaurant and dance to the Commodores' "Night Shift." Nothing is stated directly, but the film's themes of attraction and mortality seem to seep into your bones. In moments like this, her intuitive, suggestive style pays off in ways you don't get from more direct storytellers.
But is her style an artistic choice, or the only way she can work? 35 Shots also includes a subplot about a colleague of Lionel's who has reached retirement age and doesn't know what to do with whatever life he has left. This section stands in real contrast to the main plot in that it's perfectly clear—so much so that it's a dead weight on the movie. From your first sight of the poor guy, his fate seems so obvious that it's a surprise Denis goes to the trouble of having him play it out.
By Denis' standards, 35 Shots of Rum (whose title comes from a typically mysterious bit of business, a habit of Lionel's that seems meant to have some significant meaning that you can only guess at) is a crowd-pleaser: a warm, simple story about a group of beautiful people who love and want the best for each other. On those terms, it's a hangout movie made with great skill that offers the chance to spend 100 minutes soaking in warm, sad-sweet vibes and striking movie-star faces. But the chorus of reviewers who've insisted that it's much more than that may be giving Denis a little too much credit for her elliptical approach, rather than a more conventional narrative style for which she has no special talent.
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