Gregoire Colin and Mati Diop, in '35 Shots of Rum'

Dir. Claire Denis
(2009, PG, 100 min)
★ ½

What can I say about Claire Denis’s French drama 35 Shots of Rum? In its Netflix synopsis, it’s described as a “heartfelt slice-of-life.” The challenge of a slice-of-life story is to convince us that it’s a meaningful slice, that it’s reflective of something greater, indicative of a broader theme, or at least revealing of something or someone interesting, but this film fails to meet those standards. Its characters never become interesting — they barely become characters. Deep, deep, deep down in there is a touching feeling of how things change, and how some people hold on to each other a little too tightly, but the relationships are impenetrably vague, the story slight to the point of nonexistence, and the tone sleepy and inert — a still-life without the life.

The critics loved it — ask them what decoder ring they used. I found it, if I may be perfectly frank, a thudding bore. Denis was reportedly inspired by Yasujiro Ozu, which should have been my first warning. Ozu is one of the most renowned directors in the history of cinema. Last year, I watched my first Ozu film, Tokyo Story, one of the world’s most renowned films, but despite being described by historian David Desser as Ozu’s “most melodramatic film” I found it slow and inaccessible. I felt almost ashamed of my sacrilege. They’ll rescind my cineaste license and revoke my blog. Some movies you want to like so badly, but they won’t let you.

I have only seen just the one Ozu film, but I have now seen a few that were inspired by him: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, and now Denis’s 35 Shots. All three French films have in common that they are beloved by critics but not by me. If we can judge a filmmaker by the work of his pupils, then Ozu may be a filmmaker whose style I’ll never respond to. He transmits on a frequency I don’t receive.

35 Shots is about train operator Lionel (Alex Descas), his grown daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop); his ex-girlfriend Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué); and Josephine’s admirer Noé (Grégoire Colin). They share an apartment complex and a lot of portentous glances. I wasn’t sure what they meant to each other. There are long, wordless passages built on subtle looks and body language we’re meant to pick up on. There’s a wedding late in the film. I didn’t know where it came from; I must have missed the falling-in-love part. Is it necessary to be this obtuse?

One character moved me greatly: René (Julieth Mars Toussaint), a colleague of Lionel’s who feels adrift since retiring. His job was all he had; there is a poignant scene after his retirement party where he tells Lionel how lost he feels. When he’s on-screen, he brings the film its only strong emotional resonance, and he takes it with him when he leaves.

The last shot of the film is of two rice cookers. That’s not a spoiler, because I’m not sure what it’s spoiling. What could they possibly mean? Roger Ebert likes to say, “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.” Roger Ebert loved this film too.

I give up.