400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
The world's oldest film festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, continues this week. Diving through the myriad of titles, I came up with a couple of winners, neither of which has a U.S. distributor as of this moment. I'll start with the latest from the infuriatingly brilliant French director Claire Denis. Following her baffling, free-flowing, poetic epic masterpiece L'Intrus (The Intruder), Denis returns with a relatively simpler, more narrative-based feature, 35 Shots of Rum, though without sacrificing any of her unique flow. The new film focuses on an all-black Paris community of friends, relations, former and current lovers and colleagues. Lionel (Alex Descas) is a train engineer and lives with his beautiful, grown daughter Jo (Mati Diop). They don't speak very often, but they share an obviously tender relationship full of hugs and kisses on the cheek. Near the film's beginning, Jo buys herself a rice cooker, and Lionel coincidentally brings one home as well. Jo opens her father's and cooks rice, keeping her own in the package and hidden away.
We meet other characters as well, such as a taxi-driving neighbor, Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), who may be a former flame of Lionel's; the mysterious, withdrawn Noe (Grégoire Colin), who may be carrying a torch for Jo; and some of Lionel's co-workers, including the retiring, depressed René (Julieth Mars Toussaint). Of course, Denis never explains any of these relationships outright; sometimes she plants little seeds of knowledge and other times we just follow dreamily, hooked on glances and exchanges rather than facts. There's more than just a hint of Ozu here as well, with the images of trains as well as the relationship between a single father and a grown daughter, as seen in Late Spring (1949) and a good many other Ozu pictures. Denis's rhythms are perfect for an Ozu tribute; she's more about the acceptance of everyday moments than she is about achieving goals.
Next up, we've all seen the coming-of-age movie in which a lost twenty-something takes a new job, meets some new people and learns a little something about life. (Adventureland comes to mind.) But David Russo's The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle moves in an entirely unique direction. Dory (Marshall Allman -- who looks, sounds and behaves like a younger Ethan Hawke) loses his data entry job after blowing his top at work, and takes a new job as a night janitor to pay the bills. Like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, he searches for solace in religion, trying out several different kinds over the course of the film.
Cleaning the trash for a marketing firm, he and his new co-workers discover a cache of experimental cookies that supposedly taste oven-hot when one bites into them. At first the cookies taste awful, but they become quickly addictive, and with lots of weird side effects. (All I can say is that this film is not for the weak of stomach.) Vince Vieluf is terrific as Dory's mentor, who makes toilet art during his off-hours. O.C. is in love with Tracy (Natasha Lyonne), who works at the firm. Dory's other co-workers include sexy Ethyl (Tania Raymonde) and stoned Methyl (Tygh Runyan), who like to make love on conference tables before cleaning them. The company's owner is the cross-dressing, Iraq war vet Bergsman (Russell Hodgkinson). I love this film in all its sick, twisted glory. It shows this weekend in a late-night performance, and again next week in a weekday matinee.