The sensitive camera of master director Claire Denis reveals the inner stirrings of an extended, working-class, French family in her superlative 35 Shots of Rum. Fans of this immeasurably talented filmmaker will know that she has already made movies with titles such as Trouble Every Day and I Can’t Sleep. From this body of work, it’s obvious that one of her key themes creates an alliance between emotional health and the daily routine. Through 35 Shots’ quiet observations of a father and daughter who appear to be living a normal, quietly happy life, the ability of routine to distract us from our pain is made clear.
Even though it’s spare enough to be called minimalist, 35 Shots is extremely subtle in conveying its meanings. Pointed feelings are ever-present, but many lay undisclosed until most of the tale has been told. Father Lionel (who’s not coincidentally a train operator by vocation) and daughter Jo clearly love each other enough, but their relationship is complicated by unspoken strains. Watching these tensions resolve themselves, with an unreal amount of delicacy from Denis, provides the film with its considerable sense of compassion.
Denis’ work here is just as pleasing to the head, however. The opening overture, composed mostly of POV shots from the train conductor’s window sets the measured rhythm that will remain throughout the film. Backed by a Tindersticks score, it is only the first of many sublime and effortless wonders on display here. One sequence, which occurs when the cast heads out for a concert, but is forced to take refuge in a restaurant, is utterly remarkable in its use of music and its ability to be simultaneously loaded with character tension and vacillating emotional beats. 35 Shots of Rum casts its magical spell with few words, but the mojo that it works is exceptionally powerful stuff, to be sure.