In this era of media overstimulation, where both public and private space suffer from a constant barrage of sights and sounds, there are two contemporary film directors who use a conversation's silence -- the pauses inside a dialogue -- to reveal a character's thoughts and motivations. Both the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, and the steel-haired American Jim Jarmusch, rely on an actor's skill to convey his/her background. (Their films take place in the ever recurring present: the now, and now, and now...) In doing so, they create tableaux vivant wherein the characters are alive with thought and emotion, rather than writing scripts that explicitly tell an audience what to think and feel about them, or their unexplained pasts. Within this distinction may lie the difference between a standard Hollywood film, and one with a European or art house sensibility.
Similarly, with the U.S. release of 35 Shots of Rum (2008), Claire Denis has reclaimed this quiet cinematic territory for her own. Denis started her career as an assistant director, working for, among others, Jarmusch on Down by Law (1986). After the release of her semi-autobiographical first film Chocolat (1988) set in colonial Africa, her subject matter has held a tight focus on outsiders and immigrants in urban, French society. In No Fear, No Die (1990) and I Can't Sleep (1994), there is an unrestrained tension between the haves, and the people on the margins, living in crowded apartments or housing projects, struggling to integrate and survive. In other words, Denis has focused her camera's eye on the effects of post-colonial France, and the images she has shown have been severe and troubling.
What Denis shares with Kaurismäki and Jarmusch -- the lack of psuedo-psychological, over explanatory motivations -- she had already mastered in her more recent films. I remember watching the closing credits for Friday Night (2002) wondering if I could recall Laure, the main character, having said a word. At one point in the film, Laure, rides in the back of a taxi that's caught in traffic. The director takes the audience along for this extended ride. Nothing seems to happen for an excruciating amount of time, but when, at last, something does, we've been watching Laure's face and body, as intimately as a lover would. We don't know all the personal details about her life, but we've sat with her during a rush hour commute, taking in her expressions, moods and reactions. To accompany her on the journey requires something from us: the act of paying attention. Otherwise, the audience cannot passively take in or comprehend the character and her story.
Of course, there is a way of taking filmed silence to an extreme, to a dead-end of interpretation, where the only meaning to be found is through one's own personal projections. I was never able to make much sense of Denis's last, wintry feature film The Intruder (2004). It felt like a detour through Michael Haneke's bleakness, where enjoyment at the movies is mostly verboten. So I was relieved to find a straightforward coherence and tenderness driving the narrative of 35 Shots of Rum. Like most of Denis?s work, the film is virtually plotless and has little to no dialogue but sustains a terrific portrait of a young woman, Joséphine, who lives with her father, and their small circle of co-workers, classmates, and acquaintances. There is a familiarity, a closeness, in this community, but the relationships aren't immediately spelled out for us. Nor is the absence of Joséphine's mother ever fully accounted for. Again, Denis is visiting a set of urban immigrants, but not as a voyeur or a tourist. 35 Shots of Rum testifies to the fact that there has been significant progress in the degree of assimilation since Denis first started exploring the subject in the 1990s.
Not only is this evident in the characters' mastery of the French language (there are no traces of foreign accents), but they work and play inside a more integrated society. This is not to say that they live in a post-racial world where all is easy living. Like the poor, working class men and women in the films of the Belgian Dardenne brothers, Denis's characters don't inhabit roomy country homes, or even suburban flats. There isn't much physical beauty or relief from the pressures of living in a metropolis. Instead, they are striving to establish their own sense of middle class customs, comforts and norms, as first or second generation citizens in their adopted republic. It's interesting to think of Claire Denis as one of these immigrants herself. Though born in France, she was raised in Africa. As a white woman, her films could condescend to her subjects and the audience. What's thrilling about her work, especially in a film like 35 Shots of Rum, is watching the characters spend time together in silence, thinking for themselves. Even if we're watching an interior monologue, a solitary conversation with the self, Denis realizes a verisimilitude that is as compelling as a documentary, and as moving as an incisive work of art.
Over the course of this 100 minute film, a father (Alex Descas in an understated, near mute, performance), slowly comes to understand his daughter's need for independence. Without melodramatic shouting matches, or teary-eyed (and tired) reconciliation scenes, we witness Joséphine's story arc, the life-changing decision she makes, and her subsequent, ravishing transformation into a mature, young woman. These are the rewards of watching a Denis film: knowing nothing about the characters and their origins at the outset, learning few, if any, factual details as the story unfolds, and yet, becoming involved -- almost submerged -- inside their emotional lives. All the director asks of us is that we pay attention to her subtlety, and her every bit of nuance.
35 Shots of Rum opens Friday, December 18, 2009.