35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis, 100 mins, (12A)

This gentle French drama gets under your skin with a heady cocktail of intimacy and family ties

French director Claire Denis has a reputation for difficulty – at least, for making wayward, elliptical films that take the circuitous route to get under your skin.

Her films tend to be fragmented, provisional-seeming, even her most provocative and forceful ones. Take Beau Travail: a Foreign Legion story mixing drama and dance, with a soundtrack of Benjamin Britten and Euro disco, and a central character borrowed from an early 1960s Godard film. Denis doesn't make films "about" subjects, nor does she go in for straight storytelling; rather, she gestures obliquely at everything that's been on her mind throughout the film-making, and if the results emerge as reveries, or enigmas, they're all the richer for it.

Even so, Denis's latest film, 35 Shots of Rum, appears comparatively simple – appears, mark you, and comparatively. Yet every shot is so sensuously vivid that even this family vignette lets you know that you're dealing with a film-maker of intense vision and stylistic subtlety.

Lionel (Alex Descas) is a middle-aged train driver on Paris's suburban RER network, Josephine (Mati Diop) a student – although it takes a while to emerge that they are father and daughter rather than a May-September couple. The film is about their life together – or, rather, about significant if quiet moments in their world. It's also about their friends and neighbours: taxi driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who has long been hopelessly in love with Lionel; and the bullish young Noé (Grégoire Colin), who drifts obscurely in and out of the role of Josephine's admirer.

The little that happens is a matter of event rather than narrative. Josephine attends a seminar on Third World debt, and Lionel attends a friend's retirement party, an occasion for the ritual – possibly his invention, possibly not – of downing 35 shots of rum. The pair also take a brief trip to Lübeck, to visit Josephine's German aunt. This is the film's only awkward passage, less in its abrupt unexpectedness than in the sheer oddity of former Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven, whose histrionic archness is wildly out of sync with the rest.

The centrepiece sequence is the extended family's outing to a concert that they never reach because Gabrielle's cab breaks down. Stuck in a downpour, the company shelters in a café, where an impromptu dance party follows – Denis relishing, in its lush entirety, the Commodores' hit "Night Shift". The sequence is about pairings and looks: Lionel dances with Gabrielle, then with Josephine; he watches his daughter with Noé, before himself being scrutinised by Gabrielle as he takes a spin with the café's glamorous African owner. These exchanged glances – of worry, tenderness, jealousy – sketch out a concise essay on the way people feel, but don't always express, their closeness. By the time everyone takes the bus home, exhilarated and wrecked, you feel you've lived through the whole night with them, although the sequence lasts only minutes.

Denis, as usual, lets her actors fill the screen with their own idiosyncratic being. Alex Descas is one of a family of regulars who have grown older with Denis's films: here, he's a saturnine patriarch, his quiet masculine charisma saying everything about why Gabrielle loves Lionel. Another Denis acolyte, Grégoire Colin, has a wolfish presence as Noé, and a deliciously callous comic moment as he prosaically bids farewell to his dead cat by dumping it in a rubbish bag.

A new face, Mati Diop, illuminates Josephine's character without saying a great deal: her willowy beauty evokes delicacy, acute intelligence and a toughness that doesn't need to be spelled out. But the story's real centre is arguably Gabrielle: a stalwart friend who's probably destined to stay on the sidelines, and knows it. She might come across as a tragic figure, if not for Nicole Dogue, whose radiant smile carries an intense charge of indomitable character: Gabrielle's bantering with a fare, as lovers-rock reggae fills her cab, is one of those moments where a film miraculously, without fuss, catches the energy of everyday snatched pleasure.

Noé apart, all the film's characters are black, and mainly Caribbean, but Denis never makes a point of this. At moments, Caribbean identity becomes more specifically visible, as in a reference to radio station Tropiques FM, but it never defines these characters, certainly not in a way that limits the complexity that interests Denis – their complexity as Parisians, or students, or railway workers.

With more than a nod to Ozu, Denis concentrates on the ordinary details of domesticity – a pair of rice steamers, Lionel's habit of putting on his slippers. Unusually, this is a picture of home not as a claustrophobic place of trauma, but as a safe, nourishing haven – even if it won't be Josephine's home for ever.

Nevertheless, 35 Shots is steeped with melancholy and there's one moment of outright tragedy. And the film is still something of a jigsaw: a succession of passing moments and moods for us to assemble into a picture. There's also one moment that is wonderfully inscrutable in typical Denis fashion, as Lionel and Josephine gallop along a railway line on horseback: dream, metaphor or just a favourite recreation among RER employees and their families?

Denis's regular photographer Agnès Godard shoots with a fine eye for atmosphere, for the tactility of light. The score, with its wispy fairground waltzes, is by British band Tindersticks. In its distracted, undemonstrative way, 35 Shots of Rum is as heady as its title suggests, quietly crackling with intimacy and intensity.

Also Showing: 12/07/2009

Soul Power (93 mins, 12A)

A companion piece to When We Were Kings, Soul Power documents the music festival staged prior to Mohammed Ali and George Foreman's "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974. The preparations recall Spinal Tap, while the sweatily vivid footage of James Brown, BB King, et al give Soul Power a claim to be one of the best concert films ever. You'll be shouting for an encore.

Cloud 9 (98 mins, 15)

A married woman falls for an older man, the twist being that the woman (Ursula Werner) is in her mid-sixties, and the other man (Horst Westphal) is 76. The nudity is a shock, but it's the baring of the characters' souls that's remarkable. Soon, the cast's ages seems irrelevant.

Fired Up (90 mins, 12A)

Teen comedy about two high-school footballers who go to a cheerleading summer camp. Mind you, the lead actors are 29 and 32, so "teen" isn't a very accurate term – and nor, indeed, is "comedy".

Echoes of Home (82 mins, no cert)

Documentary about three Swiss avant-gardists who are trying to reinvent yodelling. Interesting for about an hour.

Ichi (120 mins, 15)

Scenic Japanese tale of a beautiful blind swordswoman.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (121 mins, 15)

From 1985, Paul Schrader's experimental biopic of Yukio Mishima, a Japanese writer fixated on the code of the Samurai.

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal