Moving on, Moving out — ’35 Shots of Rum’ demands a close watch

Mati Diop, left, and Alex Descas, right, star in Claire Denis' "35 Shots of Rum."
Mati Diop, left, and Alex Descas, right, star in Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum.”
Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum” is a movie of quiet, subtle gestures, of gazes, looks and glimpses. It’s also a movie about life slowly changing and the inevitability of people moving on. Set among the varied African communities of Paris, Denis presents a tale about a quartet of people who have known each other for a long time and about the period of time where everything has changed.

Viewers have to figure out a lot of these relationships themselves and become like the characters in the film, closely examining body language and eyes. Denis makes us work more than other filmmakers, and a lot of “35 Shots of Rum” is like being at a party for new friends and trying to figure out how everybody is related.

Well, here’s a cheat sheet: Joséphine (Mati Diop) lives in a small apartment with her father Lionel (Alex Descas), and her mother has been long deceased. He works as a train driver; she is finishing exams and working in a corporate record store. An upstairs neighbor Noé (Grégoire Colin) lives in his dead parents’ apartment with his cat, and the cat, he says, is the reason he hasn’t moved on. On to where? He’s not too sure. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) also lives in the building and, we discover, used to be very close to Lionel and Josephine before their falling out. Lionel will chat with her, but he won’t let her in the apartment.

Everybody is waiting for something to happen in their lives, and little things happen in the film that will affect every character in a big way. René, one of Lionel’s co-workers, wonders upon his retirement if he hasn’t wasted his life. Josephine is chatted up in her store by a student activist, and there’s also some flirting with Noé going on. Also, Gabrielle keeps trying to get back into Josephine’s life, until finally they arrange a trip to a concert.

“35 Shots of Rum” hangs its narrative around that fateful night, where everything changes but little is spoken.

Denis has had an odd career. Her films feel formless on first viewing, but they have a clear story running underneath. She can go from realism like this film to the surrealism in “Beau Travail” or “Trouble Every Day.” What links a lot of her films is her interest in France’s postcolonial state. Her films make a nice antidote to the heavily white, pre-colonial cinema still being made, like most of the French comedies that come to our town. Denis’ Paris shows an array of immigrants — from Algeria, West Africa, Southeast Asia — assimilating into society and forming their own subcultures, as much a melting pot as New York City or Los Angeles. Yet “35 Shots of Rum” takes that as its background, focusing instead on family, whether it be real or constructed.

The film also wraps things up very quickly. One would guess that Denis is taking her time through the film, and yes, sometimes, the pace is a bit slow. But the last five minutes tie together all the characters’ fates in a way that is sure to engage debate.

It appears that in Denis’ world, nothing is what is seems, so it’s the viewer’s job to keep looking.

’35 SHOTS OF RUM’
Starring: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Grégoire Colin and Nicole Dogué
Length: 100 minutes
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: UCSB’s Campbell Hall
Cost: $6 general, $5 UCSB students
Information: 893-3535, artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu

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