Lionel is a train driver on Paris’s rapid-transit rail network. He has been raising his daughter, Joséphine, alone ever since she was a little girl. She has now grown into a young woman. They live side by side, a little bit like a couple, refusing the advances and cares of others. For Lionel, only his daughter counts, and for Joséphine, it’s her father who is the most important person in the world. Little by little, Lionel realises that time is passing by, even for them. The time to leave each other is perhaps approaching.

Then comes the separation.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: French filmmaker Claire Denis has long been a favourite of the MIFF programmers and audience. Scheduled to attend to introduce and discuss her new feature, the intimate 35 Shots of Rum, she was a last-minute cancellation, but the film itself may well be the most communicative and emotionally open of her already laudable career.

In her depiction of the uncertain, interwoven relationships between a small group of Parisians living in a suburban apartment building, Denis favours observations of domesticity, signs of camaraderie in the workplace and the private rituals of individuals over a transformative plot. As ever she’s allowing moments to provide indications that steadily grow and amend, but her themes are made clear by some uncharacteristically overt imagery: tiny lit boxes in a nocturnal view of an apartment building signal hemmed in lives, while a driver’s viewpoint of a train in motion through the Parisian rail network suggests that lives have clearly determined paths to them.

The train’s driver is Lionel (Alex Descas), a watchful and quiet widower who shares an apartment with his daughter, Jo (Matio Diop), a university student. They are nominally happy – their routines mesh together, they’re attentive to each other. But the understanding between the two has become stultifying and neither wants to face up to the need for change. In neighbouring apartments live Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), Lionel’s former lover and a mother figure to Jo, and Noe (Gregoire Colin), a contemporary of Jo’s since childhood who is drawn to her.

This is a small but hardy canvas for Denis to work on. The compressed urban landscape doesn’t allow for the lyricism of her 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail, while the idea of family is explored in a far gentler milieu than the bloody vampire existentialism of 2001’s Trouble Every Day. Working in close with cinematographer Agnes Godard, she pays attention to the ways bodies are layered in clothes and the feeling of reassurance that comes with physical intimacy.

With the exception of Noe, virtually every character with dialogue has an African heritage. Denis makes no racial claim for the film’s setting, with poverty and crime, the springboards of so many social realists, not an issue. But subtly she’s offering an alternative to the unofficial colour bar of so much French cinema, while also adding another layer of dislocation to characters who already don’t know whether they should stay or go.

The centerpiece is a wonderfully directed scene late at night in a café, where the four central characters take refuge after a car breakdown strands them on a rainy evening. In an ongoing exchange of glances and recriminations as dance partners are exchanged and bodies graze, the tensions that sit within the protagonists wordlessly rise to the surface, building the underlying pressure. She may do so elliptically, but Denis resolves this tension not with transgressive violence or emotional retreat, but the realisation that something new must bloom. Stoically quiet, 35 Shots of Rum is her most optimistic feature yet.



1 hour 40 min
In Cinemas 01 January 1970,
Thu, 01/01/1970 - 20