For 20 years, Claire Denis has been among France's foremost filmmakers with her acute yet subtle observations of the ebbs and flows within relationships. Her perception and understanding seem to grow only richer over the years, and her newest film, "35 Shots of Rum," is surely one of her finest -- and thereby one of the best films of the year. With the greatest of ease and assurance, she catches us up in the lives of Lionel (Alex Descas), a long-widowed African immigrant, and his beautiful daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop), a college student majoring in social sciences. They live in a comfortable high-rise in a suburb of Paris, where Lionel works as a train conductor.
The heart of the matter is the loving father-daughter bond the two have formed in the absence of a wife and mother. They are happy as they are, yet Lionel at times gently encourages his daughter's independence even as she resists it. (Denis' film has been said to be an hommage to the Yasujiro Ozu 1949 masterpiece "Late Spring" and also to her mother's relationship with her grandfather.) Josephine has a rather tentative relationship with a neighbor, Noé (Gregoire Colin); another neighbor, the lovely Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué), is an ex-girlfriend of Lionel's who helped raise Josephine. She clearly is still deeply in love with him.
Life's inevitable changes prompt Lionel and Josephine to look inward and to sort out their feelings and to contemplate the future; the film examines the important process of self-discovery and making choices. It is a warm, embracing work, with a flowing lyricism and a delicate poignancy, accompanied by a shimmering Tindersticks score and an evocative use of pop songs.
Denis' childhood in Africa in the last years of French colonial rule reveals itself most directly in a classroom scene in which Josephine laments "the global South" being held in perpetual indebtedness to industrial countries. More striking is the film's depiction of blacks living secure middle-class lives in Paris, something not often seen in French films -- at least those shown in the U.S. Yet the beguiling "35 Shots of Rum's" overriding quality is its shining universality.