Friday, December 4, 2009
Simply, Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum is the best movie I've seen this year, the kind of film that lives in the quiet spaces and takes up residence in your wandering daydreams. For all the wonders it contains, I can't recommend it enough.
As you may have seen, I spent November catching up with some 2009 releases, ranging from the abominably narcissistic (500) Days of Summer to the unspeakably rewarding The Road. I’ve reviewed most of the movies I saw last month since they’re relatively new releases, but I also managed to catch a gripping documentary from 2003 called Touching the Void, about a climbing expedition gone horribly awry. It depends mostly on its factual basis for its power, rather than spelunking into the murky moral terrain it covers, but it’s certainly an incredible and entertaining documentary.
But the best movie I saw last month is 35 Shots of Rum.
Trains have become a versatile metaphor in cinema, representing everything from inexorable forces to interconnectedness. The opening shot of 35 Shots of Rum is the view from the front train window, winding down the way, changing to a different track, breezing home to its station, where Lionel awaits. But no, the train merely slows through the station, instead gliding past to another destination. Claire Denis is entirely in control of her train metaphor.
On the surface, 35 Shots of Rum follows the four surrogate family members populating a suburban Parisian tenement. Lionel lives with his adult daughter Gabrielle, who develops a crush on their upstairs neighbor, a carefree bohemian artist type named Noé. Across the hall lives Gabrielle’s surrogate mother Joséphine, who in those long years of Gabrielle’s maturation has developed an intimate bond with her father. But, as Denis fans no doubt expect, this is no cut-and-dried parallel romance story.
It’s the story of that train, blithely waving as it floats off into the wild blue yonder. It’s the story of those parallel tracks that meet up all too briefly before parting ways again. It’s the story of unstoppable generational change and putative progress and globalization, which unites all tracks and makes events in Algeria significant in Paris. And as is Denis’ penchant, it’s the story of life and all its little rhythms, the tiny details that are familiar to us all, the moments between weddings and funerals where interrupted routines are mysterious occurrences that invariably rattle our very beings.
I’m not just waxing poetic. Claire Denis revels in the smallest of details—a rice-cooker has never been so touching—and the big events of Wes Anderson or Edward Yang are consigned to context clues. Even the film’s title comes from a prepared but never indulged ritual awaiting the proper moment.
The cast and crew beautifully complement Denis’ melodic portrait of modern life. Alex Descas particularly invests Lionel with years of history, baggage barely noticeable on his worn face and an unassuming intimacy with the people in his life. Meanwhile, Denis co-conspirator Agnès Godard dependably coordinates a subdued palette and a graceful, watchful camera.
The centerpiece is one of the decade’s charmers, immediately invalidating my compilation of the best musical sequences. After their cab breaks down, the heroes take shelter in a café, appealing to the owners to stay open while they await rescue, and they all settle in. Soon, other diners join them, the bewitching music starts, and the eternal dance begins: lovers collide, family hold tight, and strangers play the role of chaos. It’s the heart of the film, a magical, musical marvel that spins cosmic insight from the daily routines and shifting courses of four old friends.