French modernist/visionary Claire Denis has been crafting sensationally tactile and sensual movies for more than two decades now, yet she's still virtually unknown outside of the international festival circuit. Perhaps it's because the hermetic, self-enclosed worlds Denis traditionally navigates — whether a French Foreign Legion unit in Beau Travail, a West African plantation in Chocolat or an enclave of cannibalistic Parisian vampires in Trouble Every Day — aren't the easiest places to traverse, even for art house mavens.
35 Shots of Rum, Denis' latest triumph, is one of her warmest, most accessible films to date, even though its setting — a working-class French neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris — may initially seem as exotic as Cameroon (Chocolat) or Djibouti (Beau Travail). The movie's principal characters — Lionel, a widowed African émigré train driver (Alex Descas) and his beautiful college student daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop) — are merely the jumping-off points for a typically dense Denis-ian allegory that touches on everything from globalization, colonization and, of course, sexuality.
Per usual, Denis brilliantly captures a sense of both time and place. The low-income housing project where Lionel and Josephine live, and the cafés and bars where everyone hangs out are so vividly drawn that they immediately feel like places you've spent your whole life. (Denis regular Agnès Godard did the virtuoso cinematography.) Reduced to a thumbnail plot synopsis (a loving father experiences typical daddy issues when his adult daughter contemplates moving into her own apartment), 35 Shots of Rum might sound more conventional — and considerably less interesting — than it really is. But Denis' steady, unhurried accretion of quotidian details (documenting how life is lived by ordinary people just like you and me) is what makes her movie so gripping and emotionally transcendent. Anyone who cares about cinema can't afford to miss it.