Just as most intelligent critics already said last year, the kind that know their Wong from their Bong and can find their Warhol with both hands, Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum” is a lovely, ruminative, impressionistic, elusive, sensitive beaut, rich in the director’s signature brand of elliptical hodgepodge and brimming with the-state-of-us-now immediacy. The problem is, I’m not sure there’s much to it.
What I’m coming up against is, I think, the gray zone in film criticism, between recognizing a film’s intelligence and artfulness, and wanting it to correspond in some meaningful way with what we as individuals conceive to be substantial or original or resonant cinema. Every time you read a critic saying “it just doesn’t work,” or, equally, praising a film in evasive ways that don’t fit with your idea of a good movie, then you’re in the zone. Some filmmakers speak to our inner ear with a confidante’s whisper, while others rock ‘n’ roll around in ways we don’t respond to, and who can blame us for taking the former as a kindred spirit? It’s a common no man’s land that few writers dare to acknowledge, but we’re all liable to get lost in it occasionally. What do we expect from a film? What do we need from a film?
Of course, what distinguishes a critic is the breadth and depth of his or her expectations of the medium’s possibilities. The worst critics, and viewers, like movies that assault them in a narrow, formulaic way, whether that way be James Cameron-esque or Pedro Costa-ish. The best are catholic in their perceptions, but no one is immune to their own ideas of what’s rewarding and powerful about the medium. And oh, how I’d like to wax testily on the idea of what a “bad viewer” is. Some other time.
The zone between desire and reality becomes especially broad and inhospitable when you’re dealing with the modern “art film,” which is lately all about elision and stylized emptiness. However savvy a viewer you may be, there will be for you, eventually, a filmmaker that simply goes too far into non-communication and nothingness, and comes out the other end, into vapidity or, worse, pretension.
We all have blind spots, and Denis seems to be one of mine. Her films, from “Chocolat” (1988) to “L’Intrus” (2004), always seem to me to be gorgeous, visually inventive contexts that flirt with substance and invention but never consummate the relationship. Is there a there there, I keep wondering? I’ve had friends show serious disappointment with me when I shrugged over “Beau Travail” (1999), a disarmingly centerless film the supposed greatness of which no critic’s review could clarify (I read them all).
It’s not a matter of one critic being immune to the wonders of form over content — I am reliably entranced by the sludgy, style-heavy films of Aleksandr Sokurov, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lucrecia Martel, etc. — and this may be where my gray zone differs from so many others’. Denis has a characteristic way of shaping her characters’ lives around an idea but never, it seems to me, targeting the idea itself.
“35 Shots of Rum” is essentially an Ozuian love story between a working father (the great brooder Alex Descas) and his commuter-student daughter (Mati Diop), as they live happily together in a rather comfortable apartment but naturally sense a teetering toward the inevitable moment of separation. She attracts men (including far-too-cool nomadic hipster Grégoire Colin), he resists a neighbor’s romantic pressure, and eventually their co-existence suffers from enough unspoken feelings that the two are compelled to drive together to Germany, and visit the dead mother’s family.
Ozu this is not — the Japanese master’s films are bustling with information as well as strict eloquence — but Denis is masterful at laying out a place and time via fragments coalescing into a whole. We get an acute sense of life on the Paris suburb rail lines (on which Descas’ Gibraltar of a man works, amidst a crowd of mixed émigré compatriots) and in the characters’ unremarkable banlieue, which seems to be completely free of crime or conflict.
Large swatches of the film are taken up with life, not story — a central set-piece involves the whole group heading to a concert in the rain, only to have the car break down and the evening salvaged in a local café, where everybody gets a little drunk and jealous glares fly like boomerangs. That’s it for incident, and the texture is paramount — most of what we know about the characters is expressed in silent looks, not dialogue.