The elliptical, moody nature of Claire Denis’s cinema can be a cause of intermingled fascination and frustration for a viewer.
"Frustration," for me, reached its apex during Denis’s last movie, The Intruder (2004), an impenetrable tone poem/travelogue involving huskies, heart transplants and Beatrice Dalle. Happily, Denis’s latest film 35 Shots of Rum (just out on DVD in the UK) is a much more welcoming experience - albeit one that (I would argue) still fails to mean quite as much as it might. The film focuses on the relationship between a RER train driver Lionel (Alex Descas) and his student daughter Jo (Mati Diop), a close bond which is subjected to some shifts when Jo draws the romantic attentions of a neighbour (Gregoire Colin). Lionel, it transpires, also has his own complicated history with another neighbour, the vibrant Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue).
Denis’s estimable talents are evident throughout 35 Shots of Rum. No director I know films bodies at rest or in motion with more eloquence: a glorious sequence in which the characters dance to the Commodores’s “Nightshift” in a bar (and the viewer experiences the intense, inchoate emotions circulating among them) is a candidate for scene of the year. As in Chocolat (1988) and Beau Travail (1999), the attention that Denis and her cinematographer Agnes Godard pay to people and space is invigorating, and there’s also something pleasingly subversive about the about the way that Denis lingers over “inconsequential” moments (the preparation of meals; Lionel’s train journeys) while jumping over other, “crucial” details. Few films have conveyed the mystery and materiality of the everyday better than this one.
But Denis’s approach also has its drawbacks. Proficient at creating moods, her films too often let the narrative go hang. Character motivation is so hazy, and some of the scenes are so insufficiently dramatised, that the meanings don’t emerge. In a period of punishing, obvious mainstream movies her tactics are admirable, but they can sometimes make for a slightly unsatisfying viewing experience. The rather inscrutable performances that Denis draws from her actors don’t always give enough away, either, and there are a couple of crucial subsidiary characters here that simply remain too opaque for us to know how to respond to. I get the feeling that Denis’s movies sometimes lose (rather than find) their meanings in the editing room; on the DVD interview here, she reveals that she cut the anecdote that explained the title from the film because it was “boring.” (Why name the film for it, then?) 35 Shots of Rum is a wonderful and beguiling movie in many ways. But I’d still like to get closer to its characters than Denis ultimately allows us.