When We Can No Longer Breathe
“I smell cigarettes,” Joséphine (Mati Diop) scolds when her father comes home. Lionel (Alex Descas) admits, “I smoked again,” his head not quite bowed, a pose that suggests he knows he’s busted but already forgiven. Their apartment, in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, is small and tidy. As they stand in the kitchen, leaning against the counter, the camera remains at a slight remove, sometimes tilted up, respectful of their quiet closeness. They eat standing up, smiling over the rice she’s made: “It’s just right,” Lionel nods.
These early moments in Clair Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums) suggest that father and daughter have spent years like this, their movements unhurried and their voices low. They understand one another, they’ve shared routines, they know what to expect even when they surprise one another. Here both have remembered to bring home the automatic cooker they’ve promised one another: as Joséphine has arrived home second, she hides hers when she spots his, pleased to be pleased at his effort. Their relationship is like that, exchanged glances, smiles averted, gentle touches and lingering hugs.
You don’t know how they’ve come to such intimacy, or how they imagine their future. Instead, they inhabit a constant, gently rendered present, their days structured by work (he’s an RER train operator, she’s a university student and clerk at a Virgin CDs store), but unhurried. That’s not to say they lack ambitions or desires, exactly, only that their inner lives are not rendered in the usual movie action or series of events. At school, Jo and her classmates discuss repression, globalization, and the IMF. After her presentation, her professor (Stéphane Pocrain) asks for more (“Explain yourself: you either say too much or not enough”). “What I mean,” she says slowly, “is debt is a way of dominating the Global South. Creditors have the privilege of deciding the rules of the game.” Her teacher suggests she’s too “pedantic” and “all emotional.” An earnest fellow student offers perspective, that the situation is persistent: “The system must be changed like Fanon says… When we revolt, it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” The scene cuts before Jo responds.
At work and at home, Jo is less voluble. She and Lionel keep to themselves, drawn into occasional interactions with a couple of longtime neighbors, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a cab driver whose unrequited affection for Lionel seems vaguely aching, and Noé (Grégoire Colin), Jo’s former suitor who announces more than once his plans to move away now that his parents are dead. If Gabrielle’s lack of stability is indicated by her job (she’s ever in motion, but not moving forward), Noé‘s sloppy restlessness contrasts sharply with Jo’s seeming serenity: he first appears outside his apartment, coming home late and receding into the hallway shadows, then kicking his parents’ cat gently, maybe playfully (“Move it, fatso”), as he enters. When she invites him to jog with her, they laugh and tease one another, their specific history unspoken. And when she visits him in his apartment—cluttered with his parents’ bric-à-brac—their silence is tense, unlike the easy quiet she shares with Lionel, as Noé seems caught between flirting with Jo and resenting her. He insists, “I don’t get attached,” but when she asks why he hasn’t left town yet, he smiles, “I don’t know. I must have my reasons.”
If these reasons remain oblique, so do Jo’s shifting relations with Lionel. His hours apart from her are cryptic and beguiling: he drives his train, the tracks winding in front of him, the rhythms and noises of the machinery monotonous and lurching. His own future is as uncertain as Noé‘s or Jo’s. As Lionel sees that René (Julieth Mars Toussaint), a coworker who is retiring feels lost and worried, Lionel tries to be supportive, but their exchange in Lionel’s train is comprised mostly of a shared gaze out the windshield. “You make me feel better,” says René. “You’re not much of a talker, you never say a thing.” Lionel nods, not quite explaining, “When I get dark thoughts, I think of my daughter.” The camera cuts to the tracks ahead as they enter a dark tunnel.
Lionel’s thoughts are nearly visible in one scene only, when he and Jo accompany Gabrielle and Noé on night out. When their plans to attend a concert are thwarted, they find refuge from the rain in a café. Here they sit and eat and drink, not talking so much as they smile and nod at one another, until the Commodores’ “Night Shift” begins to play. Lionel watches intently as Jo dances, lovely, sensuous, and wonderfully unknowable. As she glances away and his face hints at possession and tenderness, longing and utter appreciation, the ambiguity of their mutual understanding is perfectly satisfying.
Repeatedly, the relationships among all four of these carefully drawn individuals appear delicate and deeply felt, suggested in glimpses through doorways and long shots down hallways. As they seek connections elsewhere, they also hang onto one another, their choices rarely clear even to themselves. If the movie doesn’t spell out either their relationships or their choices, it does reveal, in subtle, even elusive images, the emotional and moral fabrics that connect them.