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Over the last week, I’ve been attending the COL-COA, or French film festival, here in Los Angeles. For those who are Francophiles or into foreign films (and even for those who aren’t), here are my takes on the movies I’ve seen so far.
The title of the new coming of age film, The Last Hammer Blow, is taken from a Mahler symphony and concerns fate or how many times tragic things can happen in life. When Mahler wrote the symphony, it was during a year in which he saw constant death and personal misfortune. He had three “hammer blows” in his composition to imply fate. After his own fateful year, he would never have the orchestra play the last hammer blow in order to defy fate, and now conductors have the option to play the third blow or not.
Victor, the hero of The Last Hammer Blow, is not your usual teenager in films of this genre. He’s not a delinquent or constantly getting into trouble; he’s not into drinking or drugs; he does rather well at school and even helps tutor the little boy of his neighbor—who are Spanish and trying to learn French; and he is very good at soccer and has a chance at a training camp. He also has a thing for the little boy’s older sister.
In other words, he’s not a rebel with or without a cause.
But Victor’s life is difficult. He lives in a trailer on a beach so in need of improvement that he and his mother will be moving far away if they can sell it. Even more difficult is that his mother has cancer and it’s unclear just how well she’s doing.
So when Victor’s father, an orchestra conductor or some renown, comes to town (he never married Victor’s mother), Victor isn’t sure whether he wants to meet him. But he does. However, his father doesn’t want to meet him. But Victor persists. And all of their lives start changing.
The Last Hammer Blow is more of a series of snapshots of Victor’s life. It’s not a very dramatic existence in many ways. Even when something is at stake, it’s not dramatized in a very tense manner. There isn’t even one overall goal for our hero, except to survive day to day and see if the next one is going to be better.
The movie is written by director Alix Delaporte and Alain de Henry. The approach is subtle and non-melodramatic. The film is what is often called a slice of life, a story whose effectiveness is not dependent on the usual build toward a significant climax (even the ending is a bit anti-climactic and ambiguous), but on the everyday realities of the characters’ lives and the emotional resonance they provide.
I found the movie quite moving and often deeply touching. I was captivated by Victor’s life and the way he kept on going no matter what hammer blows life gave him and by his refusal to accept the last one.
Victor is play by newcomer Romain Paul and he has a very strong presence on screen. He gives an empathetic performance and holds the movie together on his lanky, unbroad shoulders.
Clotilde Hesme is his mother; she was also in the powerful French TV series, The Returned. Gregory Gadebois, who plays the orchestra conductor, is also in The Returned. They both played the title roles in Delaporte’s previous film Angel and Toni. Here, they give very strong and moving performances.
Chekhov it ain’t.
The story covers the various conflicts the sisters have over disposing of the home, or maybe not disposing of it. Their conflicts are enlivened by visits from their dead parents and a young Palestinian boy who, it is implied, was shot on their land some time ago.
Written and directed by Shirel Amitay, it’s a bit of a muddle overall. It starts out being one sister’s story, then becomes all of their stories, then becomes the one sister’s story again, and then becomes all of theirs.
In the end they all decide to not sell and stay, but to be honest, I really wasn’t quite sure why and didn’t feel their decisions were dramatized in any clear or dramatically satisfying way (the friend who went with me said that the movie couldn’t seem to make up its mind what it wanted to be about—and I think that sums it up).
There is one incredible scene. It’s 1995 and the sisters decide to drive to Tel Aviv to join in a peace assembly celebrating Rabin’s return from the Oslo Accords. As they drive down the highway, they suddenly see car after car with their lights on having pulled over and the occupants standing around. Finally, one of the sisters turns on the radio to hear the shocking news: Rabin has been assassinated. The three stop and get out and find themselves at a loss as to what to do next.
My Friend Victoria, written and directed by Jean-Paul Civeyrac, is based on a novel by Doris Lessing. It’s about Victoria, a young black girl who one day has to spend the night at the apartment of an upper-middle class white family who are also leftist and socialist.
Overwhelmed by everything they have that she doesn’t, and becoming enamored of the teenage older brother Edouard (she’s classmates with the younger brother Thomas who keeps wanting to kiss her), when Victoria leaves the next day, she can’t forget the experience or the family and finds herself to some degree obsessed by them.
Time goes on and she ends up, as a young woman, meeting Thomas again and they have an affair. It’s clear to both of them that it’s not going anywhere and they part after a summer, but Victoria is pregnant and keeps the baby without telling Thomas. She then meets a black singer, has a son, and is left a widow when he dies in a car accident. She then decides that maybe it might be better for her daughter to know her father and his family.
Thomas and his family are actually thrilled with the idea of a mixed race granddaughter (there are some sly satiric darts thrown at these kind hearted by pretentious people) and slowly but surely Victoria lets her daughter have everything she never could, succeeding by proxy of getting everything she wanted after staying in the home the first time. It’s obvious by the time the movie is over that Victoria is relinquishing any claim to her daughter.
There is much to like here, especially in the first and third parts of the movie, the sections which actually deal with Victoria’s interaction with this family. But in the end, the movie doesn’t quite come together.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the middle section, the one in which Victoria has a son by a black man, never seems to really impact the story. Victoria is, in many ways, cruel to her little boy, keeping him separate from all the benefits the daughter is receiving. This causes problems, but nothing that significant. In fact, because of this side story, the movie is one of those that actually feels like it should just be starting when it’s ending.
In addition, the story is told third person, by Victoria’s friend who is writing a story about her. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but strangely, with all the freedom this gives the filmmaker, I’m not sure it really gives us enough about Victoria that we need to know and there are some scenes that probably would have been more effective dramatized rather than told.
Finally, there’s the issue of Guslagie Malanga, who plays Victoria. She’s quite beautiful, but she’s also a bit flat and doesn’t have that strong a presence on the screen. This tends to get in the way of becoming emotional involved in her life.
The supporting cast is much stronger and all have a lot more energy. The grandparents of Victoria’s daughter are played by French film stalwarts Catherine Mouchet and Gregory Pascal, familiar to anyone who are into French films. Both seem to really be into being mocked.