an essay by rob white

Admirers of Claire Denis may be a little disoriented by 35 Shots of Rum (2008). It lacks the menace of her recent work, notably Trouble Every Day (2001) and The Intruder (2004), whose fragmented narratives encompass psychosis and murder. 35 Shots of Rum more closely resembles Friday Night (2002), but even that minimalist study of a one-night stand is tense and unsettling: a scene in which the protagonist’s casual lover caresses another woman in a restroom, for example, turns out to be just a daydream. There is a characteristic blurring of fantasy and reality here that creates suspense and even anxiety. Watching many of Denis’ films, you will often get lost on a dark path somewhere between the believable world and the macabre distortions of a nightmare.

Yet 35 Shots of Rum is not stressful. Set in a Paris housing project, this warm and linear movie follows four characters as their lives get reconfigured. Train driver Lionel is a widower who shares an apartment with his devoted daughter Jo. Gabrielle, his former lover, and Noé, who dates Jo, live nearby. Noé is offered a job in Gabon and this accelerates his relationship with Jo. At the end they marry (although the ceremony itself is not shown), but not before father and daughter have traveled to Germany to visit Jo’s maternal grandmother. The narrative is skeletal even by Denis’ usual standards, and the way so much remains unstated is crucial. “You’re not much of a talker,” says Lionel’s suicidal co-worker René. “You never say a thing.” “Still so quiet, Lionel,” adds the grandmother later. When hostility or discomfort surface, it is not language that comes to the rescue: instead a situation gets placated by the touch of a hand, a glance of recognition, a kiss. The central characters do not negotiate, analyze their behavior, or investigate motives. It is as if they have decided that talking cannot alleviate suffering or dissipate aggression.

René is the only one who tries to articulate his state of mind. “I’d like to have died young,” he says emptily. What could Lionel possibly say to do any good? He hugs René, lends him a book about depression (Fritz Zorn’s Mars), spends time with him. When all else fails, he manages a few meager words: “when I get dark thoughts, I think of my daughter.” Nothing can save René from his self-destructive angst and he kills himself in a railway tunnel, apparently timing it so that Lionel has to find the body. 35 Shots of Rum does not suggest that solitude, hostility, and anguish can be eradicated. This is acknowledged too when the grandmother recalls Jo’s mother: “I taught her to swim. She was scared of the water. We’re all scared of it. I’m also scared of that sea. So vast, so wide. And when you scream, no one hears you.” But mostly the film explores something much more benign—a quiet, tactful togetherness.

Tension of course sometimes builds up, but it never ignites dangerously or leads to retaliation. When emotions overheat—when Jo thinks Noé is going to leave, when Gabrielle’s car breaks down in bad weather on the way to a concert—the flare-up is brief and curtailed. Gabrielle, whose past longing for Lionel is revealed in a letter Jo finds in a box of family souvenirs (“please let me live by your side…”), is the key character in this respect. She pesters Jo about going “as a family” to the concert. Although the request is intrusive, it is not rebuffed and the four neighbors set out for the gig later. Near the end, Gabrielle asks to help with the bride’s hair. “She’s doing fine alone,” Lionel says, blocking the way. Yet in the closing scene the rebuke is forgotten and these two celebrate together. The painful undertow of frustrated desire does not significantly impede the current of friendship.

35 Shots of Rum insists on the importance of humdrum actions that enable conflict to be preempted. Returning home, Jo puts some clothes in the washing machine. Then Lionel arrives (first ringing the doorbell so that she will not be surprised) and takes a shower before switching on the machine. Jo does not disrupt the water supply, knowing Lionel will start the laundry promptly. Routines like this minimize both friction and discussion. Nothing needs to be said. Noé stops by the apartment one morning before taking a trip and Lionel shares an omelette with him. They eat unfussily on their feet while Jo in her dressing gown watches. Lionel asks a question: “Taking your car or the subway?” Noé replies: “I’ll take my car. I’ll leave it in the lot.” That is all. When you rewatch the scene, it becomes clear how much emotion is in play between Jo’s father and her lover, but there is no crackle of antagonism. The apartment is a sort of utopia. “We have everything here,” insists Jo. “We’ll do as we please,” Lionel says, “we always have.” The idyll seems natural: you could start to believe that many people live harmoniously like this and 35 Shots of Rum should be treasured for its effect of credible peacefulness. This effect, however, is more complex than it may seem because it arises out of Denis’ engagement with an earlier film, Yasujiro Ozu’s great Japanese family drama, Late Spring (1949).

Released to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Ozu’s birth, the 1993 documentary Talking with Ozu contains a segment in which Denis is in fact rather reluctant to talk about him. She confesses for a start that she dislikes auteurism and the “cult of cinephilia.” What is more, admiration for the transgressive cinema of Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima meant that she avoided Ozu for a long time until she happened “almost by chance” to see An Autumn Afternoon (1963), his last film (itself a revisiting of Late Spring). The film affected her deeply but she does not really explain why, except to relate that she had a Brazilian grandfather who looked like Ozu, “olive-skinned, with a little mustache … a light-colored shirt and a cloth hat.” (Denis has mentioned in interviews that the character of Lionel is modeled on this grandfather.) So she felt a kind of family tie to Ozu: “I felt close to him.” Denis’ affection is palpable; she half-smiles tenderly as she talks in this odd, vague way. She then alludes to Late Spring, “a wonderful story and also one that has connections to my own life” (the connections are not spelled out), before she stands to read an extract from the film’s script. Denis’ attitude to her predecessor is puzzlingly unclear in Talking with Ozu; she quite simply avoids plain speaking on the topic. But it makes better sense in the light of 35 Shots of Rum, which manages to combine dissent and loyalty, significantly altering aspects of Late Spring and erasing much of its painfulness without ever repudiating it as template and inspiration.

Late Spring is the first film in the “Noriko trilogy” that also comprises Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). In all of these superb works, Setsuko Hara plays a woman who is reluctant to marry (each film’s Noriko is a different character). It was still traditional in the immediate postwar years for middle-class marriages to be arranged by parents and it was progressive even to consult the young people. When Noriko in Early Summer spontaneously chooses to marry a widower who has a young daughter, the decision causes consternation. “It was so thoughtless of her to decide on her own,” says her genial mother. “She acts like she grew up all by herself.” Such sentiments shock contemporary western viewers more than they would have done Japanese audiences of the time. Nevertheless Ozu, without taking a subversive position, counts the human cost of such disapproval.

The scholarly patriarch (played by Ozu’s favorite actor, Chishu Ryu) in Late Spring is another widower. Doting Noriko is in her late twenties and her aunt and father believe that she must leave the family home. “She should have married years ago,” says the aunt, formulating a proposition that will echo throughout the trilogy—“It’s about time you got married” (Early Summer), “I want to see you married as soon as possible” (Tokyo Story). Noriko is told that her father is interested in remarrying a widow. In one of Late Spring’s most famous scenes, Noriko looks in horror at an exchange of bows that takes place during a Noh performance. Faced with the prospect of a stepmother usurping her, Noriko consents to a match.

Father and daughter take a last trip together to Kyoto, during which he exhorts her to make the best of marriage, even though it may not be easy. “You’re starting a new life,” he says, “one that you and Satake must build together, one in which I play no part. That’s the order of human life and history.” The order of life it may be, but it is also a sham. At the end of Late Spring, he admits that he never intended to remarry. He and the aunt lied in order to arrange Noriko’s nuptials by stealth. In Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (BFI Publishing/Princeton University Press, 1988), David Bordwell notes that in its own way this cynical manipulation is liberal because “this father will not simply order her to marry.” The lie avoids outright tyranny and thus amounts to “a reconciliation of tradition with modernity and liberalism.” But this is small mercy, as Ozu shows.

In the Noh sequence, father and daughter are sitting together. After a while he leans forward, looks to his left, and bows to an unseen person. Noriko then bows too before a cut shows the smiling widow. Back to Noriko, distress dissolving her concentration: she struggles to retain her woman. Ozu then alternates wide shots with close-ups of Noriko’s downturned face as shock and bitterness play over it. Just before the end of the scene the audience around her is shown—everyone else is intently observing the actors while she is hunched over in agony. Two visual motifs therefore signal her plight. An idea of captivity is expressed both by the furtive, unreciprocated looking, and by her partially collapsed posture as she sits among rigidly aligned bodies.

The reworking in 35 Shots of Rum is radical. Lionel, Gabrielle, Noé, and Jo do not reach the concert—the social obligation is not met—because the car breaks down. They find a simple restaurant where they eat and, with a calypso version of “Siboney” and then the Commodores’ “Nightshift” playing on the music system, dance. (According to an interview at, Denis initially wanted to use Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”) First Lionel dances with Gabrielle but looks at Jo, who smiles back. Then father and daughter take a turn before Noé cuts in, smiling mischievously at Lionel. He sits down and watches them ambivalently. Finally, Lionel dances with the restaurant owner while Gabrielle looks back resentfully (Noriko’s distress diluted and displaced). By contrast with the way Ozu emphasizes that Noriko is trapped, in Denis’ scene there is a constant mobility. As with the omeletteeating, there is no shortage of emotional drama here—love, competition, jealousy, fear, shame, anger—but it diffuses like a vapor trail. There is a playful pattern rather than fixity and repression. The relay of glances binds these characters together even though not everyone gets the look she or he wants. In this way, Denis reorganizes Ozu’s Noh scene so that it no longer has a victim.

Things go from bad to worse in Late Spring. The nadir is reached during the Kyoto visit when Noriko speaks out. Seated once more, she lifts up her downcast eyes and her face is transformed by a timid but ardent smile as she manages to stifle her despair in order to make an appeal: “I want us to stay as we are. I don’t want to go anywhere. Being with you is enough for me. I’m happy just as I am. Even marriage couldn’t make me any happier. I’m content with this life.” Her father tries to interrupt, but she presses on: “No, no. You marry if you want to, Father. I just want to be by your side. I’m so fond of you. Being with you like this is my greatest happiness. Please, Father, why can’t we just stay as we are?” (Denis will again relocate the negative emotion—Noriko’s filial distress passes to Gabrielle: the plea to stay by the man’s side is found in her old letter.)

This politely devastating encounter alternates between isolated close-ups of the two speakers, but there is also a two-shot that represents the companionship that is being destroyed. Noriko’s father is unrelenting and the pathos of the scene is only intensified, and intensified to an almost unbearable degree, by the compassion and patience he exhibits as he explains the terms of her subjugation and the con-trick philosophy of the life cycle used to enforce it. What follows is terrible—no matter how reconciling, no matter how progressive by the standards of the day—because he demands that Noriko renounce any dissent and deny the doubt that is piercing her. “I was being very selfish,” she duly says, her head bowed respectfully while her eyes have gone blank in making this forced confession. “I’m glad you understand,” he replies. “I didn’t want you marrying feeling the way you did … Soon you’ll look back on this conversation and laugh.”

It is this scene—specifically the exchange about the life cycle—from which Denis reads in Talking with Ozu, her steady, mild voice destroying some of its cruelty. You could say that Denis is a fondly disobedient granddaughter to Ozu. The act of reading from the script of Late Spring is both intimate and resistant; as such it prefigures the more extensive process of rethinking that occurs in 35 Shots of Rum—a process that is neither dutifully subordinate nor directly quarrelsome. With the same tact that prevails among her main characters, Denis creates a peaceable alternative to Late Spring in which freedom and loyalty turn out to be compatible.

There is so much coercive moralizing and pontificating in Ozu’s film. Denis’ remarkable decision at key moments in 35 Shots of Rum is to reduce them to silence. In her version of the Kyoto conversation too, father and daughter spend some final hours together before the end of their cohabitation, but in 35 Shots of Rum they do not discuss what is going to occur or debate its morality. Denis’ renunciation of speech is most obvious and moving in the shots of Lionel and Jo in their camper van. You hear the sea, the clink of a bottle, some sniffs and sighs, and the sound of passing children singing in German that blends with Tindersticks’ score. After night has fallen, at last there is a fragment of speech. The two of them are lying under a blanket. It is very windy. The music fades away and Jo says: “I like being here with you— we could live like this forever.” It is not a plea or a protest and it is answered with a mere mumble of affirmation. It is not even much of an expression of hope or consolation. Conflict and agitation are absent. Noriko’s anguished “why can’t we stay as we are?” becomes “we could live like this forever,” which is a beautifully open-ended sort of goodbye.


Rob White, editor of Film Quarterly, is the author of The Third Man (BFI Film Classics, 2003).