Friday, 24 July 2009

35 shots of rum (d. claire denis; w. denis & jean-pol fargeau)

That rare joy of going to see a film about which you know nothing, and finding yourself transported to a place you never imagined you'd visit...

Denis' film takes place in a world of Parisian immigrants. Initially we meet Lionel, who drives a metro train, and his work colleagues, all of them black. Lionel lives with his daughter, Josephine, in an apartment block which contains their extended family, although it's never altogether clear how Noe and Gabrielle are connected. The narrative dances on the line of abstraction; the connections between the characters are never stated. In the coda scene, Lionel and Josephine, so close that they sometimes seem like lovers, travel to Lubeck and meet Josephine's aunt, before laying flowers at her mother's grave. Whether her German mother's relationship with Lionel was long lasting or brief is never clear; what is clear is the depth of the relationship between the aunt and Josephine. As though Denis is stripping back all the detail of race and nationality, homing in on the emotional ties that supersede everything else.

And yet... the first ten minutes of the film are slow and cryptic; extended shots of Paris from the cab of Lionel's train, a gradual introduction to the characters. Then there's a scene in Josephine's university. She's studying (presumably) politics and development; a classful of immigrants from the South discussing Stiglitz and the possibilities of restoring the balance between third and first world. The scene ends with a student talking about Fanon, (and suggesting that many of these students would not have read him) stating that revolution will not occur because of any coherent plan, but because those who are about to revolt have run out of air to breathe. The scene (reminiscent of Zabriskie Point) slots into the film like a fly in the ointment, establishing the political context of the film's character's lives, only for the politicized approach to be then discarded as readily as it's taken up.

Instead the focus turns to the slow unwinding of the relationships of these four sympathetic, dysfunctional figures, a dance that comes to life when they're stranded in a late night bar together, and they dance with one another. They dance to the unlikely sound of The Commodores 80's hit, The Night Shift, and the scene has echoes of the haunting scene in Ozon's 5x2. Dance, a language freed of words, might be the purest form of drama, and as the song plays itself out, each of the characters has their hearts revealed, and all the melancholy that underpins their lives and tangled loves is played out in a weirdly moving dumb show.

I haven't seen Beau Travail, I know nothing of Denis' work, and truth be told 38 Shots of Rum is one of those film that defies intelligent criticism. Because it's doing something that seems almost intangible, or magical, or what you will, and that magic operates entirely within in a cinematic lexicon. If you wrote the scenes out on the page, they might not amount to much. But assembled as they are, with a deliberate, elliptical pacing, they're transformed into some kind of revelation, of how a small corner of Paris lives, and how we also live, wherever we are.

No comments: