March 18 2010 12:00 AM

Director Claire Denis reveals the complex ties between four people in "35 Shots of Rum"

    rum.jpgIt takes “35 Shots of Rum” for Lionel (Alex Descas) to mark
    a truly special occasion, and he doesn’t take that ritual lightly. There don’t
    seem to be many important moments in Lionel’s life: A handsome, thoughtful
    widower, he drives a metro train in Paris and lives with his college-age child,
    Josephine (Mati Diop), in a compact apartment. It’s a good thing he and
    Josephine get along; when they sit down to eat, there’s barely enough room at
    their tiny dinner table for a rice steamer, a salad bowl and a couple of

    Stories about dysfunctional families, in which parents and
    children regularly trade insults or rehash past battles, are so common it’s
    slightly jarring to see the cozy, low-key world director Claire Denis presents,
    in which dad and daughter treat each other respectfully and share moments of
    true compassion. We keep waiting for something to go horribly wrong, for a
    crisis to turn Lionel and Jo against each other, but Denis defies expectations.
    Instead of manufacturing melodrama, she’s content to focus on the quiet, easy
    flow of life.

    So when “Rum” introduces Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a taxi
    driver with an all-too-obvious yen for Lionel, Denis gently indicates Jo’s
    impatience with Gaby without making a big deal out of it. Although Lionel and
    Jo have apparently kept Gaby at arm’s length for years, she seems convinced her
    persistence will eventually pay off.

    Jo is intrigued by Noe (Gregoire Colin), an old friend of
    the family, whose late parents owned an apartment in the building. Noe drops by
    whenever he’s taking a break from touring the world; his restlessness connects
    with something deep inside Jo’s own soul. In a more formulaic film, Lionel
    would lay guilt trips on Jo and try to hold her back. Instead, he encourages
    her to follow her own course.

    “Don’t feel I need to be looked after,” he tells her. “Just
    feel free.”

    But freedom isn’t something that comes naturally to any of
    these characters. There’s a strong sense that Lionel has never truly rebounded
    from his wife’s death. Gaby, of course, keeps carrying a torch for a man who
    tolerates but does not embrace her. While Noe flies away regularly, he doesn’t
    seem to get much satisfaction from his temporary escapes. Jo moves from her
    classes to her job as a Virgin Megastore cashier to her household duties.

    Lionel’s train and Gaby’s cab take other people places while
    the drivers themselves basically go in circles around the city, eventually
    ending up back where they started.

    In the key sequence of “Rum,” Lionel, Jo, Gaby and Noe end
    up in a café, where they each take turns on the dancefloor. Lionel dances first
    with Gaby, then with Jo. Noe cuts in and dances with Jo, while Lionel sits
    down. Then comes an unexpected development that may offer a hint of what’s to
    come. Almost no dialogue is exchanged, but Denis conveys exactly what’s going
    on in the minds of each of the characters by letting the camera linger on their
    faces, their eyes and their body language.

    Viewers who insist on stories with clear beginnings, middles
    and ends may find “Rum” too mellow and subtle. Denis and co-writer Jean-Pol
    Fargeau don’t explain every detail or highlight each plot point, leaving some
    of Lionel, Jo, Noe and Gaby’s background for us to fill in. As in life, some
    issues are resolved at the end of the day and others are not, although there’s
    a clear indication all the various relationships are about to be re-evaluated
    and altered.

    “Nothing will change,” Lionel tells Jo, reassuringly. “Yes,”
    she answers. “Everything will.”

    She’s right. And Lionel will eventually run through those 35

    “35 Shots of Rum”

    Presented by East Lansing Film Series

    7 and 9:15 p.m. Friday, March 19, Saturday, March 20 and Sunday, March 21

    Wells Hall, Michigan State University

    7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 24 and Thursday, March 25

    Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing

    $7 adults, $5 seniors, $3 students