As a modestly scaled yet masterfully crafted chamber drama from French director Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum observes a group of working-class Afro-Europeans living in an unspecified arrondissement of Paris. At its core, the film meditates on the difficulty of transitions in a tightly knit familial unit.
Neophyte Mati Diop stars as Joséphine, a twentysomething whose widower father, train conductor Lionel (Alex Descas), raised her alone after her mother died some time ago. The two share an enviable closeness; more than flatmates, more than family members, they are best friends -- emotional codependents prone to wordless communication. But the certainty of imminent change looms unspoken in the background, personified by Lionel's quasi-paramour, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), and by Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly), a young man who lingers as a possible suitor for Joséphine. The addition of either partner needn't cause permanent geographic separation, but Joséphine and Lionel both realize that their intimacy will irrevocably change when they let others into the fray -- and that this is bound to happen sooner or later.
This basic dramatic material may sound unremarkable, even pedestrian, but style is force here; Denis lays in observations with the gentlest and slightest of hands, and encourages viewers to read into the emotional layers of the film and draw their own conclusions about the psychology of the various relationships onscreen. At times, she accomplishes this via subtle touches that build in effectiveness because they function as both logical inclusions in the story and connotative symbols, such as rice cookers that Lionel and Joséphine buy for each other, unknowingly, at the same time, or (in one of the most evocative moments) the sight of another family tagging along together beside the ocean, in the dark, and able to identify one another's presence via orange Chinese lanterns.
On an aesthetic level, Denis buoys the film with an almost hypnotically meditative, nocturnal atmosphere, rich with the iridescent neon of urban architecture -- and paced so deliberately that the story almost seems to be unfolding in real time. The director takes her time to visualize and linger on the resonance of everyday rituals, which neatly draws out the feelings of domestic bliss that Joséphine and Lionel experience, offset slightly by the suggestions of imminent change.
The film culminates with a memorable scene, set at night in a Parisian café, where Lionel, Joséphine, Ruben, and Gabrielle dance, seductively and erotically, to the Commodores' "Nightshift." The scene builds in emotional impact because Denis, via ingenious crosscutting, demonstrates the intense need that Ruben and Gabrielle have to make their connections with Joséphine and Lionel permanent -- and the possibility that father and daughter may each find a partner outside of this group (suggested via Joséphine pulling away from Ruben during the dance, and also Lionel's decision to take a very young and sexy café proprietor as his dance partner -- which draws a palpably jealous reaction from Gabrielle). To leave the film within the sphere of Joséphine and Lionel's apprehensiveness about the future would have been adequate, but in this sequence, Denis achieves brilliance by extending the fears to those on the periphery. The material intuitively touches on differing perspectives and how those can add up to one giant quilt where any one decision about the future will have a ripple effect and impact multiple others.
The film's denouement represents a significant misstep -- arguably its only misstep. Denis has her heart in the right place -- a dramatic development which reveals that Joséphine or Lionel stepping away from their current situation is instinctively right. But what we're handed represents such a huge leap forward that it threatens to destroy the material's credibility, particularly after we've witnessed and sensed Joséphine's misgivings regarding Ruben and experienced the very measured pace of dramatic developments throughout the narrative. It's a letdown, though not enough of one to seriously detract from the amazing and deeply felt journey that has preceded it.