An elegant, sorrowful slice of working-class Paris, 35 Shots of Rum is director Claire Denis, one of France's great auteurs, trying the Mike Leigh template on for size and finding it fits her snugly. Train engineer Lionel (Alex Descas) and Josephine (Mati Diop) are father and daughter living comfortably - if not fully - in a boxy high-rise apartment. Taxi driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogus) and world traveler Noe (Gregoire Colin) are close, long-time neighbors. Denis doesn't force a single moment between the four, who have been friends for years, but are now forced with confronting buried emotions that, once unearthed, buzz like an electric wire.
Descas is terrific as the brooding Lionel, who covets and judges and speaks more with his eyes than his . Originally from West Africa, he appears to have learned stoicism as a means of surviving in Europe. Josephine is the apple hanging close to the tree, both in temperament and worldview. Their scenes together are tender - with a hint of tension. It boils over one night at an African café as two characters dance to the Commodores. Later, father and daughter take a trip that serves as Lionel's admittance that Jo is smart, capable and pretty, and bound for a life apart from him.
Politics sit in the foreground - Jo is an economics student debating slavery reparations and the global economy - but Denis acutely juxtaposes those academic debates with captures of working-class life: A low-key retirement party for one of Lionel's suddenly-rootless co-workers; a bowl of hot soup at lunch; and the title scene, where Lionel drowns his happiness? pain? in quick gulps of cheap booze, to the tinkling of a jazz piano. Denis has crafted a rarity in recent cinema: An eminently comfortable film that's equally soothing and sad.