Life is short and death is final.

The latest film by the great French director Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum, concerns family values. The family in the film, however, is not the traditional family—the family that's bonded by blood, the family whose roots are in agriculture and whose history predates the birth of the polis. Denis's family is strictly urban; meaning, its members have a cultural rather than a natural bond. True, two members of this family, Lionel (Alex Descas) and Joséphine (Mati Diop), are related (father and daughter); but the other two, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) and Noé (Grégoire Colin), are not. This is a family of strangers, of displaced souls brought together by the accident of an apartment building in the suburbs of Paris.

The urban family has a different and deeper set of values that are not connected by a sense of soil, wholesomeness, health, or devotion, but by the condition of being with (and close to) others who share the same fate, loneness, and melancholy. The urban family exists in a disenchanted world—science, capitalism, and cosmopolitanism have made it clear to everyone that life is short and death is final. All the urban family has are shared moments in time. "We have not gone on a trip as a family in a long time," says Gabrielle, a taxi driver and Lionel's former lover. The family of four is in Gabrielle's cab, heading to a concert. Suddenly, the cab breaks down. Paris is pouring. The four find an African cafe. They enter, order food and drinks, and music begins to play on the stereo. The father dances with his daughter, then the neighbor Noé dances with the daughter, then the father dances with the pretty proprietor of the cafe. These are strangers in a strange place.

Lionel is at the center of this small circle. He operates a commuter train during the day and at night spends time with his daughter or with workmates. He is a heavy drinker and occasionally smokes. He clearly has not recovered (and may never recover) from the death of his daughter's mother, a German he met at some unspecified time and place. Joséphine works at a CD store at night and studies economics during the day. In one scene, her class discusses the problem of third world debt and the radical ideas of Frantz Fanon and the economic theories of Joseph Stiglitz. This discussion forms the film's political background, in much the same way that the Paris transit strike formed the political background for Denis's Vendredi Soir (2002). The characters in Denis's films are never political, but the world around them, the world they move through, is shaped by powerful political forces.

Noé, Lionel's neighbor, is a mysterious man who has an old cat. He is handsome and has eyes (dark eyes) for Joséphine. Gabrielle, the other neighbor, has eyes for Lionel. Somehow all four manage to get along and to maintain strong bonds.

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The film has another kind of family—the one Denis gathers to make her films. The members of this close circle are Jean-Pol Fargeau (Denis's writing partner), Descas and Colin (her leading men), the Tindersticks (they have scored three of her Paris films), and of course, Agnès Godard (Denis's cinematographer). The mood of the movie is the same as the mood and tone of Denis's other great films—Trouble Every Day, Nénette and Boni, Beau Travail. Nothing is rushed, and moments of time are cherished (such as when Lionel picks up a red apple from a fruit bowl or when a young and very black man wearing a bright blue scarf steps out of an elevator). The music is sad and sweet, the city drab and human-warm, the characters jaded but vulnerable.

35 Shots of Rum ends in a strange place. The father and daughter are in a VW van that's parked on the beach. The daughter is preparing food; the father is drinking beer; the mighty ocean is behind them. Dusk falls—and suddenly, lanterns appear. Yellow, red, and orange, they float through the dark. We do not know where they came from or where they are going. This is just one of those moments we never want to forget because it reminds us of the beauty of the only world we shall ever know and see our loved ones in. recommended