Saturday 21 March 2015

The Last Hammer Blow & The Connection - A final note from the 2015 French Film Festival

Max Berghouse writes:
The Last Hammer Blow (Le Dernier Coup du Marteau, Alix Delaporte, France, 2015, 83 minutes) is a French coming-of-age drama set in the south of France outside the city of Montpellier. Victor played by Romain Paul is a 13, near 14-year-old traversing the path to maturity, living in something that approximates to the European equivalent of a trailer park with his single and apparently cancer-affected mother and, partly by force of circumstance and partly by desire, tries to reconnect with his birth father, a noted classical music conductor. Additionally, if he is selected for a soccer training program, there is some prospect of his situation radically improving. And of course there is the love interest, almost certainly unrequited, with a young Spanish teenager, Luna, living in the next caravan.

The young male lead (Romain Paul) is simply stunning. Working with an extremely spare script, he displays a range of emotion which one would not expect from one so young. No doubt he is somewhat older than the age of the character he plays, but he remains absolutely convincing. His natural father carries a Slavic sounding name and the young man himself has a more or less considerable resemblance to his "father" as well as, at least to me a distinctively Slavic appearance.

The back story of his parents is not entirely well integrated in that it does not make overwhelming sense, but this is not a problem because it is his story and not that of his parents.

Everything plays out with exceptional integrity and with restraint. The camera and development remain to some extent distanced from the plot – they remain objective rather than subjective. By this I mean that there is no attempt at cheap emotion. At the end young Victor seems to have the opportunity of fulfillment or at least greater security, without it being inflicted unnecessarily on what has gone before. There remains a hard edge.

I thought this film an absolute charmer.

Our last film of the French film Festival, on the last day, is proof to the view that different people, with equal sensitivity, intelligence and experience can come to radically different views. My companion was enthralled with The Connection (La French, Cedric Jiminez, France, 2014, 135 minutes) as high tension drama but to me it is no more than an adequate actioner. Concerned with the French perspective of The French Connection relating to drug exports to the USA from Marseilles, it tracks the fight of the incorruptible French magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) who of course comes from out of town into a city effectively bought and sold by the local mafia under Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), two  actors so physically similar at least to me that on several occasions I was not sure who was who.

There is absolutely no sense of fear or danger in the display of the city "sold to the other side". Brazen murders committed in broad daylight evoked my response that it was probably easier to make the shoot (photographic shoot!) in daylight.

Listed at 135 minutes, it seemed much longer and apparently the director Cedric Jiminez is still continuing to edit the film for commercial release. It is set in the early to mid 1970s and has a professional if superficial gloss of period features. Late 1960s and early 1970s cars appear strategically placed (one, a white MGB roadster appears in 5 or 6 seasons which are clearly unrelated, so that appears to be a fill in) and men's fashions of the period: wide lapels on the suit coats, mainly polyester, a plethora of tacky coloured Prince of Wales check materials, all indicate little more than some superficial care and attention with period. Interior sets for example of nightclubs probably have the same superficial reality; I'm probably too young to remember.

Characterisation is paper thin and this is not helped by numbers of characters looking very similar – and acting similarly. "Of course" (I use this deliberately as I'm sure you can see where this is going, the plot is entirely predictable) for about the 1st hour the police get nowhere and it's obvious to the audience that there is a stoolie within police force ranks. I think this is the case, or maybe it is because this plot line is so familiar we automatically leap to it. The honest police take an immeasurably long time to let the magistrate know the real state of affairs. Having indicated that, the viewing time is too long, it's also the case that exposition following the reveal of internal corruption, is very truncated and choppy and really needs quite a bit more material to make it flow well.

No one should compare this film with any other, especially the classic The French Connection because it stands on its own feet as a perfectly pleasant way to spend an afternoon, provided one gives oneself the gift of coffee and a brioche as a reward afterwards.

One of the great advantages of France as a film-going culture, is that films like this, more or less competent and professional, can find a ready audience which will find it satisfactory if forgettable. It doesn't deserve further attention.

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