Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
One of my 2019 Top Ten films arrives for a regular run in Seattle: Mati Diop’s Atlantics, a hauntingly atmospheric movie set in Senegal. My review of that film appears here.
It’s Diop’s first feature as a director, although she has made short films and acted. Born in Paris, she is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty, the remarkable Senegalese filmmaker who made an obscenely small number of films before dying in 1998 at age 53 (among his movies available at Scarecrow—basically half his output, actually—are the gorgeously surreal Touki Bouki, the scathingly funny Hyenas, and his final work, the 45-minute gem The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun).
One of Mati Diop’s acting roles was in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, a beauty of a thing. My 2008 review of that film is reprinted below. Do catch up with that one, and don’t miss Atlantics.
35 Shots of Rum
A delicate family bond, between father and daughter, is explored in “35 Shots of Rum,” a lyrical new film by the French filmmaker Claire Denis. It takes a while to figure out what’s happening in this movie, but once you do, it’s rewarding. If a film can be both enigmatic and fully emotional, this is it.
Lionel, the father, is a train operator, and a gently formidable figure. He’s played by Alex Descas, who looks like something chiseled out of wood, albeit with a short-cropped gray beard.
His grown daughter Jo (Mati Diop) is living with him in a high-rise building outside Paris. From their first scene together, we sense that the time has come for Jo to move out on her own, something her father nudges her toward. But she’s reluctant.
What happens after that? Well, a series of scenes that seem to float along as though on the surface of water. The film is a mood study on the subject of separation.
Jo has a sort-of boyfriend (Gregoire Colin), but he’s not the man her father is, and their relationship is vaguely defined. We see a long sequence in which one of Lionel’s co-workers has his retirement party, another kind of separation. This introduces the title idea: Lionel has vowed to one day drink 35 shots of rum, an act reserved for a particular kind of celebration.
The film never bothers to call attention to the fact that most of the characters are black. That’s taken for granted within this fairly ordinary, middle-class world, and it lends an air of displacement to the story (at one point father and daughter travel to a picturebook town in Germany, where Jo’s white mother came from).
There’s a long, mesmerizing sequence in which Jo and her boyfriend go out with Lionel and his ex-girlfriend (Nicole Dogue) and get sidetracked in a bar at night. The ex is clearly still hung up on Lionel, and she feels the lash when he calmly begins to dance with the pretty manager of the bar. As she so often does, Claire Denis does not use dialogue to convey the progress of that scene, but atmosphere, incredible faces, and music—the latter handled both by pop songs and the lovely score by the Tindersticks.
That’s the world of Denis, whose dreamy films include “Beau Travail” and “Nenette and Boni.” The new one is her best in ten years, and while it offers a few movie-watching challenges for the linear-minded, it creates an uncanny mood. Some movies feel distinctly like grown-up affairs; this is one of them.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.