Movie Review: 35 RHUMS

Eugene Kwon | Cadenza Reporter


I can remember what kind of feelings I had when I used to go home from school. As soon as I would step into our house, my mom would ask me what I’d like to eat for an afternoon snack, and whatever I’d answer—usually ramen or stew—she would, as always, cook something right in front of me. It was comforting to know this cycle would repeat again tomorrow.

As I watched Claire Denis’ recent film “35 rhums” (“35 Shots of Rum”), released last year in France, I was reminded of the feelings I had when coming back home, and how I’ll never quite be able to feel the same way again. The film revolves around two main characters: Lionel (Alex Descas), a reserved train engineer who is content with his job, and Joséphine (Mati Diop), his daughter, who has nothing but love for Lionel. The two live their lives habitually, with Joséphine cooking dinner, Lionel coming home from work and the two of them eating dinner without many words, other than exchanging small gestures of affection. Expectedly, their comforting pattern falls under threats of change as Joséphine’s boyfriend (Grégoire Colin) looms into the couple’s relationship, and Lionel’s work is interrupted by an unfortunate event.

With a fairly simple plot, Denis achieves something marvelous. She creates scenes of deep affection and shifts in relationships wordlessly. With an excess of films each year in which characters have to express their love for each other through saccharine dialogues and timely occurrences, such as sudden rainfall or the appearance of an ex-husband, it is refreshing to see characters express genuine affection in real situations, even if the situations are petty, like a simple dinner between a daughter and her father. The characters seem to channel the mannerisms of Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2008 film “Aruitemo Aruitemo” (“Still Walking”), which had a similar undecorated style.

A short scene further demonstrates Denis’ ability to cut words and let the characters speak for themselves. Lionel, while walking back home, finds himself in a quiet shock as he watches Joséphine’s apparent suicide attempt from the apartment window. To his relief, she was simply trying to wipe down the adjacent window. Denis surely could have crafted another scene, in which Lionel would expressively tell his daughter how much he loved her and how difficult it would be to send her away. Denis is smarter than that, however. Instead, she makes full use of small gestures such as glances and stares, in the process creating a reason to watch the film again and discover what one has missed before.

Denis’ subtle style did lead me astray, initially, and I now appreciate some scenes more than I did when I was actually watching the film. As Joséphine prepares dinner for Lionel with their newly bought rice cooker, she scoops a handful of rice and mentions how perfect it is. Both take turns scooping food onto their plates, content with everything in that moment. I remember that’s how I felt when I came home from school—content with everything in that moment, though minor concerns still lingered in the back of my mind. “A Perfect Moment,” to borrow Eugene O’Kelly’s words.

“35 rhums” is playing at the Tivoli right now.

Directed by: Claire Denis
Starring: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogué