French drama serves up shots of humanity 

A testament to the value of the small film, “35 Shots of Rum” is an atmospherically exquisite and quietly powerful story about love, loss, friendship, desire, and the intimate glances and cozy dinners that add meaning and satisfaction to life.

The French drama comes from the superb writer-director Claire Denis, whose films include the colonialism-themed “Chocolat” and the “Billy Budd” inspired “Beau Travail.” Her filmmaking style immerses viewers in her characters’ rhythms and routines; Denis’ new movie is especially accessible and full of humanity.

Following a train sequence that some may find lengthy comes the introduction of the father-daughter relationship that drives the story, which transpires in a suburb of Paris.

Lionel (Alex Descas), a widowed metro conductor, and Josephine (Mati Diop), a college student, live in an apartment where they’ve shared a close and loving bond ever since Jo’s mother died.

Both realize, however, that Josephine can’t be ironing her father’s shirts and cooking rice dishes for the two of them for the rest of her days. Separation, though traumatic, must occur.

Two neighbors shape that reality. Noe (Gregoire Collin), a restless young man who lives with his 17-year-old cat, aches for Josephine. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a cab driver, used to be Lionel’s lover and hopes to resume that status.

Co-written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, the story — which contains a death, wedding, pivotal trip to Germany and breaking-away anxiety — is rather normal in terms of plot points, its Denis-specific immigration themes notwithstanding.

But her ability to gently absorb us in the ripples of people’s lives, and to compellingly tell a story without many words (assisted by Agnes Godard’s cinematography) — a passage in which attractions and jealousies play out via body language on a cafe dance floor is most memorable — gives this movie little-gem status.

In the film — which was inspired at least in part by Yasujiro Ozu’s father-daughter tale “Late Spring” — Denis delivers one of her most resonantly human dramas to date.

Even with a scenario or two that play out predictably (a colleague who can’t cope with retirement, for example), you feel caught up in the moments of caring and contact.

Also deserving mention is the solid cast, with Descas, a Denis regular, especially strong.

The title refers to a notable round of drinking that Lionel declines to attempt at his friend’s retirement party, citing his desire to wait for a more fitting occasion. Such a time indeed arrives, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect bit of closure.


Movie Review

35 Shots of Rum

Three and a half stars


Starring Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue, Gregoire Collin
Written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau
Directed by Claire Denis
Not rated
Running time 1 hour 39 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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