The work of Parisian auteur Claire Denis has been cause célébre for many film critics over the last two decades. Her adoring supporters do backflips with the arrival of each one of her films, while detractors bemoan her frequent tendency to favor oblique narratives and veiled expressions (read: emotional and thematic complexity). Now, Denis is 61 years old, and with each new film she tilts away from the “provocateur” tag slung at her years ago, a label which never really fit her in the first place. Of her nine films thus far, only one (the bloody, vampire-erotica cautionary tale Trouble Every Day) could really offend anyone, and it’s also her worst film: a mixed attempt at moody euro-horror, though one which still deserves more than the angry decries of exploitation its been charged with. It explores some certifiably provocative ideas (the thin line between sex and violence) and features an orchestral-jazz score by Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples, as well as the sumptuous, rosy lensing of Denis’ trusted cinematographer, Agnes Godard.
The auteur calls on both names again to add mood and texture to her new film, the delicate family drama 35 Shots of Rum. And to hopefully no one’s surprise, one of modern cinema’s great trifectas doesn’t disappoint, augmenting what might be Denis’ most mature and measured work with their own brand of movie magic. It’s obvious from the opening scene that this is the work of a uniquely great filmmaker: trains rush past each other, down deserted tracks and through tunnels. A man (Alex Descas, visibly older than he was in Trouble Every Day) looks on in earnest, finishing a cigarette and then sticking around as Staples’ harmonic score hums about him. Evening turns to night in this quaint locale somewhere on the outskirts of Paris, and still the man — and Denis with him — lingers. It could be a credit sequence, if there were actually accompanying credits during this sequence. It could be an establishing shot, if it did serve to establish a specific location (no Eiffel Tower in sight, so we could really be anywhere). Instead, a sequence like this is meant as a mood-setter, articulating the tone of 35 Shots of Rum as calm and a little melancholy. In Denis’ 2005 epic The Intruder, a similar, wordless passage at the beginning served to create a sense of confusion, unrest and mystique; in 2003’s liberating sexual reverie Friday Night, the first shots of a city-wide traffic jam echo the protagonist’s sense of claustrophobia. Each Denis film is a very different animal, but it’s sequences of Pure Cinema like these that get at why none could be made by any other filmmaker.
The term “pure cinema” has always been a bit hard to pin down, but applying it to Denis’ films complements her incredible sense of emotional clarity through complete aesthetic control. The Intruder, for instance, is all heady existentialism and abstract collage, but Denis grounds the film with identifiable images and associations that give a distinct sense as to where her head’s at. In this way, 35 Shots of Rum may be her purest film yet. Most of Denis’ work tends to straddle the line between narrative obligation and artistic indulgence — certainly the case with Trouble Every Day, its impeccable rhythms frayed by a sometimes clunky plot — and though she rarely fails to find that compromise, not since her career-defining masterwork Beau Travail has she gotten it all so right: she lingers on a face or figure only as long as she has to; she cuts just when it feels necessary for her to do so; and, excluding the handheld takes, she moves her camera ever so slightly, and always with purpose. Denis is truly at the height of her powers here, and 35 Shots, coming nine years after Beau Travail, completes a decade in her career that I can only assume will be looked at in retrospect as her absolute artistic peak. And as the films which mark the beginning and end of that period, these two could hardly be anymore different. Beau Travail finds Denis liberally adapting Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. She relocates the story of jealousy and mistrust to a French Legionnaire camp in Djibouti, and in the film’s long, imposing takes of the soldiers’ synchronized exercise routines — their bodies caked in the dry dirt of a parched African landscape — Denis unearths the homoerotic undertones of her source text. Simultaneously, she renders the muscular male form with austere authority, a kind not seen since Michelangelo put chisel to stone. In contrast, 35 Shots of Rum is a film of a much quieter strength, as Denis chooses understatement over broad gestures, and winds up with the most affecting film she’s ever made.
Yet it’s the spectrum covered by the two that’s most impressive, blanketing everything Denis has done in the interim: fetishization of skin (Trouble Every Day); dreamlike mirages (The Intruder); intoxicating sexual and romantic longing (Friday Night). Her cinema has always been about the senses, so it’s not surprising that 35 Shots of Rum, the auteur’s culminating work of the decade, is a masterpiece of sensory cinema. Descas plays Lionel, a train operator living in a modest Parisian apartment with his shy, virginal daughter, Jo (Mati Diop). Lionel begins to worry he may have sheltered his daughter too much as she, already in college, seems unwilling to strike out on her own. But when he urges her to “just feel free,” he later has difficulty accepting that freedom as she tries to exercise it. It’s a relationship as real and unsentimental as any depicted on the screen, and recalls the father-daughter bond of Yasujiro Ozu’s classic Late Spring, if only because 35 Shots is in fact meant as an homage to the Japanese master. Which is fitting since Denis, like Ozu, is intent on taking her time, letting the scenes between Lionel and Jo play out with graceful precision; she pays extra attention to the way one’s hand strokes the other’s, and gives a charge of empathy to a father’s long gaze at his daughter. And if you’re wired right, in Denis’ unhurried rhythms you’ll find a reflection of life effortlessly captured, a mastery exemplified in the extended centerpiece at the heart of the film.
The occasion of a concert brings together Lionel, Jo, Tall French and Oily neighbor Noé (Grégoire Colin, the hypnotic center of “Beau Travail”), and their landlord Gabby (Nicole Dogue). Noé’s advances toward Jo have been received with trepidation thus far, and Gabby’s heart-on-her-sleeve affections for Lionel, whose also her old fame, have faired just as poorly, but their night together will bring all these emotions to a boil. It starts when the car breaks down on the way to the concert in the middle of a torrential rain. Through the window they spy the vibrant red curtain of a small café, almost magically suggesting a warm paradise away from the misfortunes of their night. Inside, a radiant hostess offers them towels to dry their bodies, which glisten in the café’s hot yellow light. “Siboney” creeps through the jukebox as Lionel dances playfully with Gabby, and then affectionately with his daughter. Lionel eyes the beautiful hostess, and she notices him back. Then, just as The Commodores’ soulful and seductive “Night Shift” wafts in, the whole mood of the room changes. Noé cuts in on Lionel to dance with Jo, and the two kiss. Lionel looks on disapprovingly, then takes the hand of the hostess and they dance together slowly. Gabby, from her seat at the bar, looks crushed. But if it sounds like a melancholy scene, it isn’t; there’s too much love in this room for bad vibes to drag it down, and as a lyric from the indelible “Night Shift confirms, “It’s gonna be alright.”
A stretch toward the end of “35 Shots of Rum” is almost as good. Jo drives to Germany with her father to visit her mother’s grave, and a flow of naturally beautiful images passes across the screen: Jo and Lionel adorn the grave with flowers; they camp out under the stars in a patch of tall grass, as Jo suggests, “We could live like this forever”; and finally, a parade of children with glowing red lanterns march over a hill set against a sunset-orange sky. The film heads back to Paris for its equally stunning coda, and it all ends on a note of uncertainty about the future, as any film which hopes to capture real life probably should. Where Denis chooses to take her career from here feels just as uncertain; 35 Shots seems like the end of an era for the auteur. Her prior films found characters unable to directly express how they feel, hindered by race or class distinction, stubbornness, jealousy, or an unfortunate disorder (the sexual-desire-cum-violent-impulse of Trouble Every Day, for instance). 35 Shots of Rum, then, feels like the point at which her characters stop groping around for the right gesture — at least comparatively — and find a way to express how they feel. As Denis has spent more than two decades studying and parsing that obscure object of desire, a little openness is something she’s thoroughly earned.