Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE LAST HAMMER BLOW (LE DERNIER COUP DE MARTEAU) | 82 min | NR
Directed by: Alix Delaporte
Starring: Romain Paul, Clotide Hesme, Grégory Gadebois
Quiet movies where most of the action is internalized are not typically found in the American marketplace. Sure, we recently had BOYHOOD, but films like that are few and far between. I’m not exactly sure why, since they hit viewers right in gut with their restrained, refined and beautiful poignancy. European filmmakers get it – especially Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose cinematic creations always capture life’s most intimate and immediate moments. Now comes co-writer-director Alix Delaporte’s THE LAST HAMMER BLOW, a captivating coming-of-age gem that shares a similar tone, vibrance and style with the Dardennes’ films all whilst having a unique voice of its own.
Teen Victor (Romain Paul) has seen a lot of tragedy in his life: His mother Nadia (Clotide Hesme) is dying of cancer and can barely afford some much needed repairs on their beachside trailer home. His estranged conductor father Samuel (Grégory Gadebois ) won’t have anything to do with him and his mom – nor would Nadia want it any other way. He’s also lacking confidence in his athletic abilities – so much so he’s unsure if he’ll try out for a spot for an elite soccer training school. Plus, the cute Spanish girl next door he’s crushing on, Luna (Mireia Vilapuig), barely notices he’s alive. But when things at home begin to worsen and he learns his dad is in town to conduct Mahler’s 6th symphony, Victor sets about to make some changes before his fourteenth birthday.
Much like many of the Dardenne’s films, Delaporte peppers her picture with similar themes – of the value of money, family and work. Like them, she also barely scores the film, with music appearing only when absolutely necessary to fill in any narrative gaps (like the haircut scene at the beach with Luna). If there was more there, I was too deeply entrenched in what was going on to really pick it out – a sign of great filmmaking. Not that one needs to have any prior knowledge of classical music; it’s all the more fascinating that Delaporte brilliantly and rather covertly follows the same crescendos as her film’s inspirational piece – strikes of the “hammer,” echoing Victor’s challenging setbacks.
The key to creating such perfection is the way Delaporte creates familiarity and immediacy. The organic nature of the settings – such as the cold, blustery wind that constantly barrels down harshly on the seaside trailer homes – and the actors’ expressions do most of the heavy lifting. As a whole, this isn’t very dialogue heavy – and she proves it really doesn’t need to be. Gone are overly verbose speeches about how characters are feeling, and in their place, brilliant subtleties. She shows rather than tells. Not many words are spoken, but when they are, the audience can feel the characters’ internal motivations and swirling emotions. She, and co-writer Alain Le Henry, make use of the film’s brisk run time by layering subtext into character’s conversations. The scene in the restaurant between Samuel and Victor says so much about their relationship in such a elegant and restrained way. As they bond over beer and pizza, Samuel tells him, “To sense music, you don’t need to know it.” Those words and actions speak volumes – it’s like we’ve just seen a father and son play catch for the first time, the father bestowing his knowledge on a son ready to learn. Minus any schmaltz or saccharine flavor, it’s those types of resonant moments that hit the audience where it matters most – in the heart.
5 out of 5
THE LAST HAMMER BLOW (LE DERNIER COUP DE MARTEAU) plays ColCoa on April 21. It currently has no US distribution. Someone please change that sad fact!