35 Shots of Rum is a remarkable existential drama about the intersection of some thoroughly unremarkable lives. Loosely based on Ozu’s Late Spring, director Claire Denis plops us into the middle of the daily doings of a family of immigrants – what’s left of the family anyway – in a grimy outer suburb of Paris. What follows is a series of snapshots that, at first blush, depict the quiet desperation and common banalities of everyday life. But through her unique directorial prism, Denis is able to illuminate nuggets of bravery buried deep within. As a narrative, 35 Shots of Rum doesn’t advance so much as infect, and while ultimately there’s little in the way of catharsis, viewers will find the film a satisfying and haunting sojourn.
Despite momentary flights of fancy, for Denis’ characters the routine of life proceeds at a desensitizing rhythm, just as passenger trains travel their scheduled routes in a hypnotic clatter. The most revealing moments of backstory occur near the end of the film during a road trip to a German village, where details of Lionel’s life are given bittersweet clarity. Descas and Diop shine in this sequence, projecting a mix of deep respect and mortal awareness through poignant and gentle moments. Their long voyage as parent and child is drawing to end, and soon they must separate under the thick gray skies of Parisian winter. Like the windows of a speeding train, Claire Denis has made us appreciate, understand and see a bit of ourselves in 35 Shots of Rum’s passing reflections. And if we look past the nearby blur, the quiet wonders of the human landscape are revealed in the distance.