After her challenging, mysterious last feature The Intruder (2004) and a short foray into documentary with Vers Mathilde (2005), Claire Denis returns with a softly stirring tale of family ties that has its origins in her own childhood memories. 35 Shots of Rum explores the shifting relationship between Lionel (Denis regular Alex Descas), a Parisian train conductor, and his adoring daughter Joséphine (Mari Diop), who he has been raising alone. Although Joséphine is already a student and old enough to leave home, they still live together in a grey, suburban apartment building, next to two neighbours who have become friends (and silent admirers) over the years. Noticeably linear in its narrative, delicate and graceful, 35 Shots of Rum may seem at odds with Denis’s bolder, edgier previous works such as Beau Travail (1999) and Trouble Every Day (2002). Yet, the tone may be milder, but it is sharply observed, beautifully constructed and eccentric enough to avoid sentimentality. Sophie Moran talked to the director on the occasion of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where 35 Shots of Rum had its UK premiere.
Sophie Moran: Your new film feels much quieter and seems to be your most personal work so far…
Claire Denis: Yes, maybe. Actually, it is inspired by the story of my mother and my grandfather. He came to France from Brazil, and he got married to a French nurse. But she died when my mother was still a baby, so my grandfather raised her on his own. It’s a story I knew and kept thinking about since I was a kid. But in a way, it’s a story belonging to my mother that she never shared with us.
SM: How did you approach these personal memories and develop them into your film?
CD:Once I made the decision to do the film, it was not very difficult, because when we were living in Africa, my mother would receive a letter per day from my grandfather written on this very fine, thin Airmail paper, and she would reply to him every day. This way they shared every detail of life even at this distance, and these letters still exist. But my mother also told us so many stories about her childhood. She felt free not having a mother, and she felt like she was never obliged to do things little girls are obliged to do… and we envied her for this. We thought she had a marvellous life. When my grandfather died, I was only 12 years old myself, but I realised my mother was still his girl, not a little girl, but his girl. She did not belong to my father or to us – she was his. Of course, my grandfather was always very distanced in any sort of physical expression of love, but their relationship was so deep. My mother is 85 years old now and my father is also still alive, but there is always this picture of my grandfather near her table and I know, even if the picture is very small, it is there. In a way, they lived the life of a couple for 20 years.
SM: In your film it seems that there is a certain ambiguity in the relationship between father and daughter as it is so close and intense.
CD: Do you think? Not for me… it’s not an ambiguity. In the beginning for example, I introduce the characters, not telling the audience what their link is, but it’s not ambiguous to me. When I started thinking about this first scene, it was important for me to describe people who have been together for a long time, therefore with a ritual, with habits. And in the end when the script was finished I said to Jean-Pol (Fargeau), my co-writer, knowing that Alex (Descas) was going to be the father, I said ‘it’s strange, but they are really like a couple’, and that’s why at the end of this scene she says, ‘Merci papa’. But it’s normal, I guess… and Alex and Mati have a way to embrace and to touch that is not ambiguous.
SM: The rice cooker Joséphine gets for herself and also from her father that evening seems to have its own very special meaning in this setting?
CD: It is two things, on the one hand it is there to really qualify my homage to Ozu, because he made a film called Late Spring that tells the same story, and it’s a film I like a lot. And on the other hand, in a way it was a sign to say that she’s not ready to go, she still thinks that they can improve the apartment. She doesn’t think it’s time to move.
SM: The scene in the bar, when the four main characters – father, daughter and the two neighbours – are stuck because their car broke down and they all dance together to ‘Nightshift’ by the Commodores, this scene seems to be the emotional heart of the film, but it also signifies a turning point.
CD: Yeah, I mean the father makes that decision, when he is dancing with his daughter. He holds her in his arms like a father, not like a lover, and then when Noé comes in it suddenly changes, things are changing. The father organised it in a way, but he is also suffering at the same time. And when he’s dancing with the woman from the bar, he’s also doing that to remind Gabrielle and his daughter that he’s a man and he has sacrificed a lot of things for her, and he is taking his freedom. He also needs that move.
SM: Do you see this as the central motif in the film, the wish to keep things as they are and the fear that comes with it that things might change too much, too fast?
CD: Definitely, that’s also why I chose the train-driving job, because I thought in a train, time is passing, everything is constantly changing, changing, changing… And I think deeply in myself I feel how much I would like everything to stay still sometimes and not to change.
SM: Trouble Every Day was probably your most extreme film. Did you feel it was a turning point? Did you want to do something very different after that film?
CD: Actually no, I think it was a weird thing that happened. A few years before I made a short film in New York with Vincent Gallo, and James Schamus, the American producer, was there and he asked me, ‘Why don’t you make a gore movie?’, and I said, ‘No, no, no, I’m not able to do that’, but he said ‘You should try’. And it was like that sort of thing that I had in mind all the time and somehow it became Trouble Every Day. Maybe if I’m honest I’m not able to joke about gore, and if I try that it’s going to be really painful. In a way I felt I had to make that film, it was very important for me.
SM: Josephine is studying economics and political science and we once see her in class; there’s also a scene where she gets caught in a student protest because they are about to close the faculty for anthropology at the university where she studies. Both scenes stand out in the otherwise very intimate atmosphere of the film. Why was it so important for you to include these scenes in the film?
CD: I knew it would be a little bit different, but I thought if she is studying in that particular university where they actually really closed anthropology because they thought that for young people from the estates it is better to learn a good job and not to study anthropology, then it matters. It’s superfluous when you’re white and in a good university but in Saint-Denis it’s a question you can raise every day, because it’s true that people are not treated so well there.
SM: Is the ethnicity of the characters important to the film?
CD: I think it was important to see that, to be black in this university doesn’t mean that you’re only there to learn so you get a good job, you also want to understand. So many times I was told ‘Oh, but this is gone, the debt’ and ‘Frantz Fanon is out of fashion’ and so on, and I said, ‘Fine, I don’t care’. For me it was still very important. And at that time nobody knew that Barack Obama was going to be elected and then, last year, when I had finished the film, I was invited to Haward and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] during the election and every student was quoting Frantz Fanon, it was so much fun. When it comes to humiliation, I think we always forget that we – white people – are often still not very serious with these kinds of questions. I kept the speech that Obama gave before the election because he speaks so well about racism and humiliation.
SM: You’re currently about to finish your new film called White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert…
CD: Yes, I hope it’s going to be finished for Toronto. But please don’t make me say something about it. I don’t like to talk about things that are not yet completed… you’ll see.
Interview by Sophie Moran