The inviting, lovely new film by French master Claire Denis traces the relationships among four inhabitants of a high-rise apartment building on the outskirts of Paris: Lionel (Alex Descas); his 20-something daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop); Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue); and Noé (Grégoire Colin).
With an unhurried pace that Denis uses throughout the movie, called 35 Shots of Rum, the characters are introduced individually, and as they are slowly brought together we begin wondering about the nature of the relationships that connect them. Tellingly, it's not clear in their first scene together whether Joséphine is Lionel's daughter or his wife.
Rather than a conventional plot, Denis' simple, pleasant game of revealing the relationships among her four main characters provides the primary momentum of 35 Shots. Denis has a brilliant knack for figuring out how much she can tell her audience without disturbing the naturalism of the story's construction and her actors' performances. We watch Lionel steer the commuter train he drives for a living, sit in on a class with Joséphine as she and her classmates analyze global debt systems and join Gabrielle as she smokes cigarettes at a café.
Even though this story turns out to be very much about the history shared by its characters, nothing is ever deliberately unearthed for the sake of the audience or to heighten conflict. Gabrielle pines for Lionel, and probably has for many years, but Denis trusts her audience to figure out why a romance has never developed. Similarly, Noé has feelings for Joséphine: When she has a coffee with him at his apartment and notices that he's gotten out his passport, she asks, "Where to this time?" Noé's response, "Come along and see for yourself," does not start an argument or, conversation about a romance they may or may not have had. But everything is contained within the exchange. It is on their faces, in the space between them, in the silence that follows the remark and, ultimately, left to the interpretation of the viewer.
As an audience member, it's hard to locate the precise moment that you form strong opinions about some of the characters, but you certainly do. As just one example of the way characters are developed in 35 Shots, when we first meet Gabrielle she is driving her cab, having a little exchange with her fare, who says that cab drivers are never happy and implies that they all hate their jobs. Unfazed, Gabrielle remains upbeat and continues to chat with him. Gabrielle's resilience is initially impressive, but—at least for me—a fascinating thing happens as the movie continues: It's this very quality of Gabrielle's that begins to grate, because it seems false. I cannot think of a time I've ever engaged with a character this deeply, disliking her not for anything that she's done outwardly but because of my sense that she is not honest with herself.
Nothing is superficial in 35 Shots; information comes at you solely from the faces of the actors or the space they inhabit. As in life, but rarely in the movies, the relationships you form with the people on screen are not predicated on major events or the taking of sides but on your attraction to their dispositions, their asides, their honesty and their kindness. And, it should be noted, the characters on screen are essentially kind, pleasant people doing their best to be kind and pleasant to each other. While she never calls attention to it, Denis makes an involving story out of people behaving well, an accomplishment of the highest order.
In a way, 35 Shots defies analysis: Denis makes directing look so simple and effortless, there hardly seems to be anything to pick apart. She doesn't even need a story, just actors and a camera (and her ace cinematographer, Agnés Godard). Of course, this just means that Denis' artistry is the kind that doesn't reveal itself even in its densest, most complex moments. Here she has made a film that allows for total immersion, provoking emotional reactions and audience involvement without asking for it. She has made a film that breathes, moves and lives. Her film doesn't seem to have been made at all; instead, it seems to have been born.