French director Claire Denis is one of the most magical filmmakers in the world, a moody, intuitive artist whose best movies—Beau Travail and Friday Night among them—have a pure, elliptical quality that transcends the page, as if she’s flying without a screenplay. Denis’ last feature, The Intruder, pushed that elliptical style into out-and-out incoherence, but she finds her footing beautifully with 35 Shots Of Rum, a film grounded a bit more in nuts-and-bolts character work than usual. It’s a story still told in pieces, without the narrative spoon-feeding that generally carries an audience through a movie. But once all those pieces fall into place, the film evolves into a simple, intimate, acutely emotional portrait of a family reaching a painful crossroads.
Taking a page from Yasujiro Ozu, 35 Shots Of Rum concerns the relationship between a middle-aged widower and a lovely, devoted daughter who’s starting to inch past the age where she can enjoy a life of her own. For the father, played with great reserve by Alex Descas, the catalyst comes when a fellow train conductor is forced into retirement, but with nothing to retire to; his friends and his identity are tied entirely to the workplace. Though Descas has the good fortune of having daughter Mati Diop at home to look after him, he resolves that she find her own life and love independent of him. It’s a difficult prospect for them both, because they’re happy together; as with Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in Ozu’s films, their bond transcends mere familial obligation. But Diop clearly has feelings for their upstairs neighbor, a wayward young traveler played by Denis favorite Grégoire Colin, and the time might be right for moving on.
Though 35 Shots Of Rum is suffused with emotion, Denis avoids the broad strokes of explicit conflict, instead establishing the father-daughter relationship through small kindnesses and the subtle pleasures of their domestic routine. She also conveys the tenderness of the people in orbit, including Descas’ ex-girlfriend (Nicole Dogué), a cab driver coping with her own loneliness and longing. Other Denis films have more overt artistic flourishes—though a bar sequence here, set to a Commodores single, is Denis at her lyrical best—but 35 Shots Of Rum has an enormous depth of feeling, underlined by a gorgeous Tindersticks score that tells the story without words. It pays tribute to Ozu while transcending homage.