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