In Ozu Yasujiro’s 1949 film “Banshun” (Late Spring; the first part of the Noriko Trilogy that included “Early Summer” and “Tokyo Story”), 27-year-old Noriko wants to stay taking care of her 57-year-old widower father. As in many Ozu films, the father drinks heavily with work associates and enjoys stable domestic life and is at least unconsciously jealous of suitors for the daughter he monopolizes. Inn other Ozu movies, a mother guarantees continuity and gently pusher her husband to accept that their daughter is grown up and should have her own life. In “Late Spring” it is the aging girl’s aunt who pushes for independence or a change of dependence from father to a husband for Noriko.
The African-raised French writer-director Claire Denis, best known for “Chocolat” and “Beau travail,” says in an interview that is a bonus feature on the DVD of “35 Rhums” (35 Shots of Rum, 2007) that the movie is an homage to “Late Spring.”
The film begins looking ahead (down the tracks) in an RER commuter train through Paris suburbs. The driver (engineer) Lionel (Denis regular Alex Descas) and others hold a farewell party for another Caribbean, Ren (Julieth Mars Toussaint), who sees no future for himself in mandatory retirement.
Josphine (Mati Diop) first appears in a college class that is discussing the debt load of countries south of the Mediterranean, then taking Lionel’s slippers to him when he gets home. It is not immediately clear that she is his daughter. They are definitely domestic partners. He has remembered to buy a rice cooker, and while he showers, she makes rice.
They have a kitchen table, but twice in the movie eat standing by the stove. The second time, No (even more Denis regular Gregoire Colin), who lives upstairs, joins them. It seems that his life is on hold, too. He has inherited the apartment and furniture from his parents. The 17-year-old cat seems to be his own.
Again, it’s unclear if No and Josphine are a couple. The fourth character in a sort of multi-unit family is Gabrielle (Nicole Dogu) a spirited taxi driver who looks longingly at Lionel and has had some part in raising Josphine. If Lionel and Josphine were lovers in the past, Josphine would like to resume their relationship, or, if not, to begin one.
No looks longingly at Josphine and/or her window. Reben (Jean-Christophe Folly), a classmate of No also looks longingly at Josphine and invites her to a concert. She, however, is already going with her father, No and Gabrielle.
En route there, Gabrielle’s taxi breaks down in pouring rain. Lionel persuades a Caribbean caf owner to reopen for them, and much that we have not been told about the relationships (and desired relationships) becomes clear: ye olde show don’t tell. Later, visiting Josephine’s mother’s sister (Ingrid Caven), we find that Josephine’s mother did not leave, or rather left through death. (I had assumed that, consistent with the “Late Spring” set up.)
Some things happen, though “35 Shots of Rum” is definitely character-driven rather than plot-driven, and like many an Ozu movie shows that change is accepted reluctantly, but happens. Daughters grow up and their fathers have to give them up.
Even Gabrielle, who seems to be the one of the five main characters who wants change may want it to be change back to an earlier status quo-as Lionel’s partner and Josphine’s de facto mother. (I don’t know if No wants his parents back to life or Lionel wants his wife back.)
As usual, Denis is aided by the cinematography of Agnes Godard, with marked varieance from wide-shots to close-ups of the interesting faces of the cast.
The rather pushy interviewer for the French film channel Cinemoi, Jonathan Romney, asks Denis if she has particular music in writing scenes or whether the scene comes first. She leaves no doubt that the scene has primacy and she later thinks about music to go with it. The key scene in the film involves the Commodores’ “Night Shift.” Denis’s resistance to Romney’s analytical questions. The 21-minute interview with clips will interest those who like the low-key movie.
There is also a trailer for the movie and for 8 other DVD releases and an hour-and-ten-minute discussion of her body of work onstage at Ohio State University in 2004 with Judith Mayne, who was writing a book about Denis’s films. This feature is frustrating for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that they are discussing a series of scenes from Denis films that are not included (obviously, not extending to “35 Rhums”). Second, as in her movies, she seems to distrust exposition in words. Third, though Denis has very little accent in English, her English is a bit halting. Or, possibly, she thinks more before speaking than many interviewees. It often takes her quite a while (not through silence) to get around to the question posed her. It is necessary to slow one’s expectations down to the examinations of lives and situations in Ozu or Denis movies, and even more to slow down to what she says in English in this interview. I could for discussion of movies of hers I’ve seen, but not for others I have not.
(Denis told Romney that she shot an explanation of the title, but that it was too boring to include, so she cut it. Downing the 35 shots is obviously a feat for a rare occasion.)