Eating in Near Silence: The Trope of Food in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum

By Aaditya Aggarwal

Shortly after discovering his companion Rene’s body lying dead on the railway tracks, Lionel – the protagonist of 35 Shots of Rum – returns home. Taken from his point of view, a slow pan captures his daughter Josephine’s solitary, bright, red rice cooker stationed with ease on his kitchen counter. It is blowing out steam into the kitchen air like thin chimney smoke. There is a baguette lying beside it, a black tape-recorder radio and an espresso machine facing it, their backs lazily against the wall. Often, through the course of its screening, the viewer sees the rice cooker already placed, with artful carelessness, in Lionel and Josephine’s kitchen. In Agnes Godard’s languid pan, the viewer’s gaze glides over the distant kitchen apparatus, an intimate, almost magical rice cooker, billowing warmth in silence. The object stationed and caressed by the camera serves to be a site of return, of a mobility to the home but also to elsewhere, of a newness much like its recently purchased self.

Food, the very preparation of it, is intimately related to the bodily and spiritual sensorium of – Lionel (Alex Descas), Josephine (Mati Diop) and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) – the pivotal (second-generation, black, working-class) characters in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum. Migration, a relevant yet an outwardly untouched thematic in the film, becomes tangible in the quotidian consumption of home-cooked cuisine in these character’s lives. Drawing from Rosalind Galt’s analysis of an aesthetics of refusal in Denis’ films in her essay “Claire Denis and the World Cinema of Refusal”, this paper argues that the pensive, soulful shots, dedicated to the trope of eating in 35 Shots of Rum, echo the former’s “pleasures of refusal” (Galt, 107). Crucial to Denis’ films, Galt argues, are elements of “default cinema” (Galt, 105), a mode of film that “creates impediments to the reproduction of dominant narratives” (Galt, 105), central in their circulation a slow assault to “capitalist film culture demands” (Galt, 105). Foodways become Denis’ fixation to default, a way for her to resist “the spectator’s expectations concerning the direction of narration” (Galt, 105) in her film.

Embodied through tropes of travel and labour – in Josephine and Lionel’s commutes to and back from work, as well as Gabrielle’s commute for the purpose of her work – food imagery serves a liminal purpose in subtly underscoring what Tim Bergfelder calls the “liminality and marginality in European cinema” (Bergfelder, 320). He proposes for European cinema to embody “an ongoing process, marked by indeterminacy or ‘in-between-ness’” (Bergfelder, 320) of diasporic communities. His language echoes the waiting and moving of transit space in public transport, of the daily workers’ train commute, of a stop or a transfer central to not just migrants but also the second-generation Maghrebi characters of Lionel, Josephine and Gabrielle.

In what can be deemed the first spoken dialogue in the film, Josephine’s voice is heard calling from behind a humble display of rice cookers at a suburban departmental store, twinkling red fairy lights arranged across the medium shot around each wooden cubby. She says to to the shopkeeper as she pulls out the unassuming, floral white container from its shelf: “I’ll take this one!” Nestled in the warm – even romantic – softly maudlin background score, her selection from the falsely bejeweled exhibit indicates the starting point of Denis’ venture: a purchase.

The removal of a commodity placed into a new context, that of the home. Denis creates an idyllic mundanity in what seems to be an everyday aspect of Josephine’s return home, an apartment in the HLMs, “a symbol of regional and national disinterest in the emerging multi-ethnic working classes” (Bloom, 471). A stationary medium shot of her kitchen reveals the humble lines homing this space, her figure quietly sautéing mushrooms in a pan. There follows a close-up shot from below, taken perhaps from the imagined gaze of the sizzling contents on the stove. She hears the doorbell ring and smiles. We see her smile again later, softly, like a habit, when Lionel, her father, brings home a rice cooker. And later, again, when the father and daughter share their meal, tasting the rice, Josephine sampling it for him as he serves her a plate.

We, as viewers, are decidedly only partially invited, kept at a removed but welcome distance from both the characters’ intimate kitchen space. Their looks, toward their food, to one another, responsive and gentle, are rarely, if ever, furthered into reverse shots or close-ups. This serves to simplify to the viewer the nature of their dynamic with food, or the communal nature of eating together. There is, in Galt’s terms, a refusal to “produce a smooth success in global capitalist terms” (Galt, 105), which, in the case of film, means the comfort with an absence of intrusion, a pleasure and patience with not knowing the entirety of an action. Much like the viewer will never know why Lionel celebrates on occasions by swigging thirty-five shots of rum or who/why Josephine eventually marries, we also, quite simply, will not fully be privy to the detailed contents in their plates. What exactly are they eating? And why is Godard’s camera fixated, almost fetishistic, on the enchanted rice cooker, and not the rice itself? In this scene, Lionel and Josephine’s gentle silences and looks to and at one another respond to their foodway, something that quite possibly occurs in what Galt calls “the stoppage of one regime of vision…outside capitalist time” (Galt, 106).

Taking a decided detour from the genre of beur cinema, a movement by “second generation North African filmmakers who have grown up in France” (Bloom, 469), food imagery, distant in its soft mundanity, becomes a tool for the viewer to intimately share with immigrant characters, the labour, sense of transit and eventually, pleasure, they derive from eating – together or by themselves. In her first scene in the movie, Gabrielle is seen sitting on her cab’s driver’s seat when a front close-up shot reveals her carefully opening, stirring and consuming a spoonful of her packed soup. Godard tilts the camera to her face as she sips the mouthful. With pleasant, visually soft tones, Denis frames this shot as a moment of distinct labour-pleasure at the workplace. A taxi driver, Gabrielle’s character soulfully consumes her meal during her daily toil, one moment sustaining her body with food, the other conversing at ease with her taxi passenger.

In Galt’s analysis of Denis’ film, she emphasizes the “sense of stalling, of an absence of propulsion” (Galt, 106) as affects of cinematic default. Denis’ denial of the spectator’s neoliberal pleasure of narrative fulfillment is embraced by her slowed down approach in patiently, guilelessly, framing Gabrielle’s eating-while-laboring black positionality. A dedication for refusal, for causal default, resounds in the larger context of the film’s depiction of racialized bodies. Bloom notes that beur cinema is harrowing as it is representative of the diasporas, “pairing claustrophobic HLM apartments with…a state of emotional and geographical dislocation” (471). In Gabrielle’s matter-of-fact, on-the-move workplace behavior, Denis complicates the feelings of displacement and desire often positioned at odds in beur cinema. An aesthetics of default, as ones employed by her in this instance, mold the two together.

Instead of obsessing over and pathologizing Lionel, Josephine and Gabrielle’s black underclass experience in the banlieues, Denis’ mode of refusal claims foodways as equally diasporic and rooted in their preparation and enjoyment. The ritualistic eating in homes is normalized, even comically so, in a shot where Noe, Josephine’s assumed love-interest and neighbor visits Lionel and herself. Lionel is seen cooking an omelet, followed by a funny, almost silent (save for the chewing sounds and clanking of forks against plates) shot of the three characters standing in diagonal formation from the foreground to the back of the frame. Lionel and Noe are eating their omelets at the front, with Josephine sipping tea at the back. The quietude of this frame borders on hilarity, documenting in stagnancy what it means to eat together.

But the journeying and homing of food do more than reveal the relaxing texture of domestic chores in 35 Shots of Rum. This is palpable in Denis’ holding-still of cinematic time, or rather, her mulling over the calculated, stolen seconds of real time, where looking, tasting, feeling are intensely necessary experiences of the always, already displaced and reterritorialized sensorium. The focus on the subjectivity of the second generation black youth, the working-class commuter, is gently complicated in gustatory consumption – with its thrills and joys, its everyday boredoms and textures. Ultimately, the rice cooker, cyclically thick and relational to Josephine and Lionel’s lives, can be what you want it to be. In Bergfelder’s terms, the mainstream European art film strives for a “nationally specific and stable meaning”. The rice cooker, plastic and plump, stationary and mobile, in the immigrant home is anything but that. Unstable, inadequate and even ghostly in its lonely affection, what becomes of the food, leftovers and mobile appliances in films? What stories do our digestive transfers carry and who do they default?


35 Shots of Rum. Dir. Claire Denis. Perf. Mati Diop, Alex Descas, Nicole Dogue. The Cinema Guild, 2009. DVD.

Galt, Rosalind. “Claire Denis and the World Cinema of Refusal.” SubStance. 43.1 Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014. 96-108. Print.

Bergfelder, Tim. “National, Transnational or Supranational Cinema? Rethinking European Film Studies.” Media, Culture and Society. 27.3. Southampton: University of Southampton Press, 2005. 315-331. Print.

Bloom, Peter. “Beur Cinema and the Politics of Location: French Immigration Politics and the Naming of a Film Movement.” Social Identities 5.4. 1999. 469-478. Print.

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unnamed (1)Aaditya Aggarwal is a 4th year student at the University of Toronto, graduating with a double major in Cinema Studies and Contemporary Asian Studies, with a minor in South Asian Studies. 

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