"We haven't gone out as a family in years," French taxi driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) says of the foursome in her cab in Claire Denis' delicate drama 35 Shots of Rum. Even an attentive audience might ask, "They're a family? Who knew?" While middle-aged Lionel (Alex Descas) and college student Joséphine (Mati Diop) are clearly father and daughter, their relationship to Gabrielle and restless young Noé (Grégoire Colin) take shape only gradually over the course of the warm yet drawn-out film.
Even more than most French filmmakers, Denis stingily parcels out information about the personalities in her film. The approach forces the audience to fall into the rhythms of the characters without dictating how it should feel about them. We pick up on Lionel's sadness at the retirement of a fellow subway driver, sit in on one of Jo's anthropology classes, and eventually realize how much the parent and child revere and rely on each other. Like Denzel Washington, Descas communicates an enormous amount of feeling through the subtlest use of his eyes. When epiphanies come in off-hand gestures or melancholy expressions, they can take the viewer by surprise, rather than feel like the motivations of a clockwork screenplay.
Denis grew up in French colonial Africa, which may account for her choice to focus 35 Shots of Rum almost entirely on immigrants of color and biracial Parisians. Denis never cuts to clichéd establishing shots of, say, the Eiffel Tower, but instead emphasizes the view of Paris from subway cars speeding through working-class neighborhoods typical of most large European cities. Music and food repeatedly bring people together, but Denis avoids treating those moments like Ethnic Diversity 101. In a languorous scene at an after-hours café, the characters dance to the Commodores' "Nightshift," of all things.
Denis, one of France's most acclaimed female directors, has acknowledged that her uneventful, ruminative narratives can be "a bit slow." During the film's first act, you wonder if the video from a stationary security camera would be more action-packed. By 35 Shots of Rum's final scenes, however, the important details fall into place and you'll find yourself deeply moved without quite realizing why.