Friday, July 1, 2016

Alix Delaporte's THE LAST HAMMER BLOW -- another winner screens at FIAF's CinéSalon

With a single exception so far, Burning Bright -- the new series from FIAF's CinéSalon that introduces the next generation of French auteurs -- is proving to be every bit as good as is that popular yearly series from the FSLC, Rendez-vous With French Cinema. This week's film is another little gem: THE LAST HAMMER BLOW from a filmmaker, Alix Delaporte (shown below), with whom TrustMovies is only now getting acquainted.

Ms Delaporte has written for French television and co-written and directed two movies, the latest of which is this 2014 film, which tackles the tale of an adolescent boy named Victor (played by a simply terrific newcomer, Romain Paul, above and below) in the French provinces finally coming into contact with his birth father, whom he has never met.

Dad  (played by Grégory Gadebois) is a fairly famous orchestra conductor, who may not even know he has a son. Victor's mom (the always fine Clotilde Hesme), who wants nothing to do with his dad, is recovering (well, we hope she is) from what looks like a bout with cancer of some sort, and when Victor learns that his father is guest conducting the local symphony in a performance of Mahler's Sixth, he determines to meet the man, come hell or high water.

That's the set-up, which sounds interesting enough but perhaps nothing we haven't seen previously. But how Ms Delaporte chooses to tell her story -- in swift, sharply observed scenes in which the exposition is mostly buried within the actions and behavior of the characters -- is something else.

This means we have to stay quite alert for fear of missing any telling moments, of which there are plenty. But the filmmaker makes this easy to do, via her casting of the three leads, each of whom shines, and all the subsidiary characters, as well. (That's Spanish actress Candela Peña, above, left, with Ms. Hesme; also in the cast is noted Spanish actor Tristán Ulloa.)

The lead performances -- that's M.Gadebois, above, and Ms Hesme, below -- are so immediate and real, without ever being "showy," that the film often appears to be something close to a documentary. (Gadebois rather resembles a French answer to our own Peter Sarsgaard, if a little heavier, and he gives a most interesting performance here.)

While her film unfurls in logical, first-this/then-that order -- no back-and-forth flashbacks or anything super-stylish here -- Ms Delaporte instead chooses to give us scenes that may seem almost random but are actually very well chosen to further her story and build her characters, while avoiding the typical and sentimental.

Characters grow and perhaps change, but only in small increments. All this makes what happens in the course of the film seem both believable and "earned." Consequently the joy we experience at the finale comes from a place much deeper and more genuine than often happens in stories like this one.

Young Monsieur Paul is quite a find. He has one of those wonderful faces that seem to want to hide feelings yet can't. They keep seeping through, as much as he tries for disguise. The IMDB does not show any further acting work for him post this film, but I do hope we'll see more of this young man as he grows up.

Gadebois and Hesme give performances of wonderful specificity and emotion. Though we never learn specifics about what happened between their characters, this seems yet another smart choice on the filmmaker's part. And the actors bring such depth to their roles -- they make their quite different situations seem understandable -- that we don't miss, even one tiny bit, the more standard exposition many moviemakers would offer. (The scene, above, in which Dad has his son come up and watch the orchestra from the conductor's standpoint is fascinating and rich. I've never seen anything quite like it in a film before.)

The way the movie handles music -- the love of it and the making of it -- seems to me exemplary. Combining Mahler, soccer, cancer and parenting, The Last Hammer Blow weaves all this together with such spirit and grace that we can only sit back and marvel. And care. And enjoy.

This film really ought to have been picked up for U.S. distribution, so FIAF's bringing it to us now can only be seen as a gift. It plays this coming Tuesday, July 5, at Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan, twice only at 4 and 7:30 PM. Click here to learn more and/or purchase tickets. And remember: FIAF members attend free of charge.

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