35 Shots stars Alex Descas, the magnetic actor who has previously appeared in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) and Boarding Gate (2007) and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), as Lionel, a widower who contently shares an apartment with his daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop). He works as a train conductor while she attends university and holds down a part-time job in a CD store. She appears to be in no rush to move out, and in their daily routines and habits they maintain an uncomplicated, deep-running love for each other. A warm, semi-familial bond exists between them and others in their building: Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a spirited taxi driver who was once romantically involved with Lionel, and Noé (Colin), a charismatic young man who often goes on trips abroad. Gradually, Lionel becomes more aware of his daughter’s blooming maturity and gently urges her not to devote her life entirely to him. Jo expresses reluctance towards the notion of leaving him, yet she eventually finds herself being drawn ever closer to Noé and, consequently, a new path in her life.
35 Shots is partly notable for being an homage to the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu – specifically his 1949 film Late Spring, which also revolves around a father letting go of his daughter (a premise that Ozu himself used many times). Denis fittingly includes many familiar Ozu touches, not least of all the many shots of trains passing through urban spaces, which signify with poetic simplicity the flow of everyday life. There are also the sequences that portray the comfortable essence of Lionel and Jo’s apartment, which is made especially apparent whenever Jo is shown caringly preparing meals for herself and her father. Near the beginning, there is even a humorously direct evocation of Japanese culture when they each buy a new rice cooker on the same day. Yet Denis wisely takes care not to make her film a mere carbon copy or one-dimensional love letter. Instead, she firmly roots her story in a specific context – namely, that of the black working class population living in contemporary Paris. Some of the film’s most memorable moments focus on the closeness shared by the train network employees, which comes to the fore when René (Julieth Mars Toussaint), a longstanding colleague of theirs, begins his new life of retirement. Here, too, emerge some of Ozu’s themes, namely the cruel way in which work can eventually consume a person’s life, which is also communicated through Gabrielle’s occupation as a taxi driver and the scenes in which Lionel contemplatively watches trains pass in the distance before heading home on his motorcycle.
Unlike Ozu, who virtually invented his own unique mode of film grammar with his subtly disorienting editing, low camera placement, and fixed compositions, Denis isn’t afraid to get close to her subjects, at times rendering them through intimate, handheld shots. This allows her to develop a strong emotional resonance that manifested itself in far more different ways in Ozu’s cinema. Naturally, many moments dwell on Lionel and Jo as they calmly appreciate one another’s company, be it riding through the night together on his bike or sleeping side by side on a windy beach. One striking image portrays the two of them atop a black horse trotting along a set of railway tracks – perhaps a plucked fragment of Lionel’s subconscious? Yet the signature scene of 35 Shots is very much set in reality: after Gabrielle’s cab breaks down in the rain on the way to a concert, she, Lionel, Jo, and Noé retreat to a closed restaurant to find comfort, food, and drink. There, they bask in each other’s company and music, which, when it switches to the Commodores’ “Nightshift,” brings one of those magical passages of cinema that a viewer will only ever find once in a while, illustrating through song and image alone the tangled currents of emotion that link these souls together.
In 35 Shots of Rum, Denis focuses on two diametrically opposed elements that Ozu explored through much of his career: habit and change. In her own way, she shows what she has learned from the master and indicates his far-reaching universal wisdom while, simultaneously, creating a lovely film that remains her own from beginning to end.