REVIEW: 35 Rhums [35 Shots of Rum] [2009]

“We revolt simply because we can no longer breathe”

There are no clean breaks. Life is messy and wonderful all at once as we grow older each day, striving for that little bit of excitement and longing to continue on. We all have dreams and aspirations, but oftentimes they fall into the background as life itself takes over, pushing us in one direction without a chance to breathe and say no. There is always that love keeping us going whether from a significant other or a child or a friend. Sometimes too, that love could be someone not able to reciprocate it, no matter how close the two of you are to each other. The living move on while the dead are laid to rest, relationships evolve or devolve depending on fate, fact, or age. Claire Denis understands these simple truths and has encapsulated them all in the magnificent gem that is 35 Rhums [35 Shots of Rum], showing us four Parisians that have lived in disharmonious harmony for what seem their entire lives. For some reason, however, the period of time displayed explodes in a powderkeg of emotion and progression, finally allowing each to take stock of his or herself and move on towards the future they’ve kept in front of them for too long.

Lionel, his daughter Joséphine, her surrogate mother Gabrielle, and her childhood friend Noé all come together one last time, an event that hasn’t occurred in forever. Each is at a crossroads wondering about their next step, carefully watching the others for some sign or clue for what to do. Lionel sees his friend retire from their job running the trains/subway and the loneliness and fear of the unknown he shows. Seeing his own mortality, he begins to worry about his daughter spending so much time taking care of him, hoping and trying to let her know that he will be okay. Jo herself is in school, studying hard, and working a part time job at a record store, being the woman of the house when she comes home, cherishing the routine that has served the duo well for so many years. Gaby is entrenched with her taxicab, loving the adventure it creates with new customers each day, but longing for something big, not to mention pining for Lionel and hoping that one day he will notice her as she does him. And Noé is a successful young man constantly traveling for business, retaining his parents’ old apartment and belongings, including the family cat, rather than leaving to make his own mark. Jo asks him one day why he has stayed and his smile tells us—if she doesn’t want to accept the truth—that it is her, the only attachment he has allowed himself to keep in his heart.

All four characters go through the weeks, maybe months, shown onscreen by crisscrossing one another and pretending everything is all right when in fact nothing is. They are all living in the past, dreaming their dreams but doing nothing to let them come true. It is the oldest story in the book, something each and every one of else deals with at some point of our lives. There is always the easy answer keeping us from achieving the big prize out there for the taking, if only we were bold enough to reach out and grab it. Their reunion together as a ‘family’ eventually reaches its climax while attempting to see a concert in the city. Car trouble ensues, Noé sees another man court his Jo, and the foursome find themselves at a bar past closing time, looking each other in the eyes and taking the plunge for better or for worse. There is dancing, there is kissing, there is love, and there is heartbreak. When all is said and done, decisions are made that risk shaking up the equilibrium all have become so accustomed to. Their lives are forever changed by this one night—a wrench thrown into the middle—accelerating choices to be made and allowing all to look behind them and say goodbye to the past, whether that means the death of a family pet or visiting the grave of a deceased family member. In order to move forward, one must acquiesce with what’s been left behind.

I love how the film was shot, very up close and personal. We see the quivering faces during times of sadness and the jubilance at times of happiness as the camera frames each actor to allow them to do their thing. Many shots linger on hands or feet; we see menial activities such as cooking dinner, taking a shower, or smoking on the balcony awaiting the return of a loved one. It is the little details that draw you in to the big picture on display. By watching them all partake in the everyday minutiae, we are able to project ourselves into the film, relating to every emotion by remembering the last time we felt the same. This foursome of actors fully embody their roles; bringing each to life for us to follow. They are everyday folk that we work with, pass in the street, and share a beer with at the pub. Nicole Dogue’s Gaby shows her ceaseless sense of joy and love towards Jo as though she is her own daughter. No matter what Lionel does to hurt her feelings, she keeps the smile on her face, looking towards a new day. Grégoire Colin’s Noé has that deer in the headlight stare, contemplating his next move, hoping that Jo will finally look at him the way he does her. Unable to ask her to go with him due to her father being alone, all he can do is wait for life to intervene. And Mati Diop’s Jo is so strong and weak altogether. She gives so much of herself to those around her that she has never discovered a way to live for only her.

But the real story here pertains to Alex Dascas’s Lionel. This man is stoic perfection, finding himself on the outskirts, always watching and listening. A man of few words, he is also one of many emotions, knowing far more than he lets on of what is happening around him. Denis has crafted him as the one they all look towards for guidance, but, until he sees his friend’s inability to go on after retirement, he doesn’t realize how far they have all come without ever really going anywhere. There has been no real day that has stood out to him as one to remember above all the others; he has trapped himself away from the rest of the world for too long. Life does eventually start to move forward without him, pushing his own necessity for progression quicker than he might have wanted. But Lionel is an adapter, able to look at the future and smile with hope. All we can do, any one of us, whether we feel stuck in a rut or in over our heads, is hope for that one day that comes along once in a lifetime to be able to put caution to the wind and drink up thirty-five shots of rum in one sitting. That is the day we all strive for and hope to see before life gets too far ahead of us.

35 Rhums [35 Shots of Rum] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

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  1. [...] Rhums [35 Shots of Rum], review: On the top of so many lists I’ve read this awards season, Claire Denis’s French film lives up [...]



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