"35 Shots of Rum": Movie Review (2010)

1/16/2010 Posted by Admin

Movie Review

"35 Shots of Rum"

Directed by Claire Denis, written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, 100 minutes, not rated.

By our guest blogger, Kicia Sears

While watching "35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum)," it may help to have a good command of French. If you rely on English alone, figuring out what's going on will be difficult. Things happen somewhat at random and other events are left unexplained. Perhaps it’s the translation. However, there are many things that contribute to a film’s success or failure, and blaming the subtitles doesn’t erase the other gaps in the story. Though director Claire Denis takes pride in using mystery and subtlety, the plot is confusing and frustrating.

Sometimes, subtle simply means weak.

The story revolves around train conductor Lionel and his college-student daughter, Josephine. We meet Gabrielle and Noé, two neighbors who spend a lot of time with Lionel and Jo. It becomes apparent that Gabrielle and Lionel have a romantic history. We follow their daily lives, and after they visit a café where Noé reveals feelings for Jo, she and Lionel decide to take a trip. Working with this narrative is another arc about one of Lionel’s colleagues, René, who retires. A 35-shot tradition is introduced at his retirement party, but Lionel refuses to take them, saying that one only does this once in his life and that the time has to be right. Upon their return there is a wedding, and Lionel takes his 35 shots of rum.

At the end of the film, there are many things left to guessing. For example, some might wonder why anyone want to take 35 shots of rum? Why is this a tradition? Is this some kind of French thing that never made it to the States? The answer is simple--who knows? In an interview, Denis states that she made up the 35-shot “tradition” and that the number 35 is arbitrary. OK, so why as an audience do we care? You’d think that, because it is such a specific number and somewhat addressed in the film--it is, after all, the title of the movie--that Denis is trying to make some kind of symbolic statement. To know that she made it up seems unfair, as if we were dragged through the plot and at the end of the rainbow (and a pretty bleak rainbow at that), there is no pot of gold.

Then there are the rice cookers. Jo and Lionel both bought them the same day, but Jo hides hers when Lionel brings one home. Lionel finds Jo’s rice cooker.   The final shot in the film is of both cookers. They could be material objects standing in for Lionel and Jo…but it's unclear. When asked if they stand for change, Denis affirms but refuses to elaborate. This, like the rum, is another example of an obscure symbol that doesn’t deliver.

But it isn't all bad. As characters, Lionel and Josephine are likable. They have a bond that's expressed not only through words and affection, but through the way their movements are synchronized. They achieve chemistry that shines through the muddled plot and spotty dialogue. That takes a kind of brilliance, all due to Mati Diop and Alex Descas, who play Jo and Lionel, respectively. However, Noé is tiring and Gabrielle is squirm-inducing in her awkwardness. She calls the four of them a “family” when it is pretty clear that Jo doesn’t feel that way and Lionel isn’t interested. She seems to invite herself along, and her constant knocking on the door talking about how great it was when she would babysit Jo is just creepy. I’m still not buying Lionel’s supposed interest (according to Denis) in Gabrielle--even his nonverbal cues signaled nothing but annoyance at her constant badgering about the old days and one thing to remember is that while he’s being nice to her at the end of the movie, he is also 30 shots into his 35 shots of rum. At that point, he’d probably have an engrossing conversation with a houseplant.

Compositionally, the film is average peppered with a few very nice shots. One interesting thing about Denis’ cinematography is that during shot-reverse-shot sequences, she allows the camera to linger a moment before the reverse. This serves to magnify the tension and delicacy of Jo and Lionel’s relationship, and how it is being affected by their relationships. Denis also enjoys shooting on location, which gives each of her films a distinctly gritty, real look.

So, the bottom line.  "35 Shots of Rum" is about a half hour too long, and too confusing to be intimate. The plot simply doesn’t deliver a coherent message on its own. It’d be too easy to say that American audiences aren’t advanced enough to understand French cinema, what with our "Die Hard" epics and chick flicks, but when the characters aren’t compelling enough to maintain interest, that’s something that can’t be blamed on the language barrier.

Should you watch the movie with someone who speaks French, perhaps the experience is different, though even they can’t help make visual cues more coherent or Gabrielle less creepy.

Grade: C

View the trailer for "35 Shots of Rum" below. What are your thoughts?

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