Saturday, November 20, 2010

35 Shots of Rum

Directed by Claire Denis.
2009. Not Rated, 102 minutes.
Alex Descas
Mati Diop
Nicole Dogue
Grégoire Colin
Jean-Christophe Folly
Djédjé Apali
Eriq Ebouaney
Julieth Mars Toussaint

You know what they say about us Americans who like watching foreign films? We think we’re smarter and more sophisticated than the rest of you. Along comes a movie like 35 Shots of Rum to remind me I might not be as artsy-fartsy as I’d like to think. I’ll explain.

It’s subtly written and filmed likewise. Of the movie’s 102 minutes of runtime, roughly 100 of them are very quiet. It’s beautifully acted, also subtly. It is so subtle the characters really do feel like actual people. There really is no plot to speak of so it plays like a true slice of life type of film. It’s even in French. It’s arthouse in every sense of the word. Yet, I was bored to tears and pissed off about the ambiguous ending. That last bit is most surprising. If you’ve been paying attention, you know I generally love those types of endings. Usually, the more questions I’m left with, the better. Here, not so much.

What is 35 Shots about? To be honest, I’m still not sure. We spend lots of time with Lionel (Descas) and Joséphine (Diop), a father and daughter who share an apartment. He works as a train conductor and goes out drinking with his buddies from work every now and then. She goes to college, does housework and occasionally works at a Virgin music store. I didn’t know they still had those. No, it’s not set in the past, either. I know this because the very whiny René is given an I-Pod as a retirement gift. Anyhoo, Joséphine seems to have a thing for Noé (Colin), the guy who lives in the apartment upstairs. There is also Gabrielle (Dogue), the cab driver who lives in the apartment next door. She seems to have been carrying a torch for Lionel since she learned to walk. The feeling isn’t really mutual. He likes her, he just doesn’t like like her. Oh, and there’s whiny René. He pops up every five or ten minutes to…um…whine…until he eventually does what I knew he would the first time he opened mouth.

Why was I bored? It was far too realistic. I realize that’s an odd complaint to make, but hear me out. If someone stuck a camera in most of our homes and just observed our true dailyu lives without forcing us to vote someone out, compete for a prize or give us random tasks and jobs to prove our worth, most of the viewing public would be hard-pressed to be entertained. In movies about families, dramatic devices occur at fairly regular intervals to advance the plot and/or add intrigue. Personalities are exaggerated to create sympathy, empathy, heroes and villains. In 35 Shots, it feels as if we’re watching reality without the TV. There are no votes, hypersexual tension or grand prize. These people go through their mundane existence in a mundane manner.

It takes courage and patience to make a movie like this but it lacks the magic to make its players transcend the screen. What passes for a romance feels disjointed and barren of hope until it is hastily resolved. The resolution, however, feels unreal and out of very deep left field. For all of the movie, we’re watching what seems to be everyday of their lives from the time we meet them and then, we suddenly fast-forward to a conclusion.

The 35 shots in the title is perhaps most perplexing. About midway through, we learn that Lionel either celebrates or rues a major event in his life, we’re not sure which, by downing 35 consecutive shots of rum. If he’s able to walk the next day I’d be shocked, but I digress. We’re told there is a story behind this ritual that he won’t tell at this time. This comes up again at the end of the film. Sadly, without having seen it you know as much as I about the significance of this practice. Justifying alcoholism? Probably not. If any of you brainiacs has happened to watch this movie, feel free to enlighten me.

This is a difficult film for me, if you couldn’t already tell. The writing is lyrical and sparse. People have conversations without saying a whole lot. Their pauses aren’t pregnant with the possibility of an earth-shattering revelation in the next sentence. They’re just pauses. There are no complaints to be made about any performance here. Many of the elements critics are thrilled by are present. Still, it doesn’t add up to winning cinema, for me. In my eyes, the whole equals much less than the sum of its parts.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10

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