Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2012 4:19 pm 
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Welcome to hard times

John Shank is an American from the midwest who studied filmmaking in Belgiun and has settled there. His distinctive, austere debut feature film is set in the rough, elevated Aubrac region of the French Massif Central, cattle range country, with the riveting, intense Vincent Rottiers (of I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive and In the Beginning) embodying the central role of a quiet loner whose working of the isolated family farm is his burden and his joy after his father has died and passed the farm and the ways on to him. His stubborn devotion to the old ways spells his doom in a world where the economic realities call for compromises he won't make. This is a good role for Rottiers, who looks like a mixture of Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan, though he doesn't get to say much. Johann, his character, has a girlfriend, Julie (the lovely Anaïs Demoustier), with whom he makes quiet, soulful love, but he is alone a lot with his cattle. Or a boy, PIerre (Théo Laborie), someone else's son who likes to hang around and do chores, an acolyte in a field that may be dying. The first quarter hour of the film sets a style of poetic naturalism that's reminiscent of Terrence Mallick. But the film has some Claire Denis in it, the Denis of The Intruder (and this has Michel Subor, who starred), the way the forces of nature run right through you as you watch, and people sometimes take on a feral quality.

Then things get tough, and Johann holds out mistakenly, doggedly, against business concessions the cooperative wants even though he's suffered a crippling barn fire and the insurance won't pay. He asks for loans from a well off friend, Frank (Hélier Cisterne), whose father was a cattleman but who left what he thought was a doomed occupation. Frank says no. Johann takes back his sister, Marie (Florence Loiret Caille) who has mental problems, either because he can't pay for her to be cared for or because he wants company. He begins to hide, casts out Julie and Pierre. Hélier (Subor), the rich local cattleman who was to save the struggling cooperative, suddenly grows ill and dies. (His widow is Aurore Clément.) It all leads to a brooding finale, in which one feels Johann is a sacrificial hero who represents a whole dying class of traditional, independent rural ranchers.

Besides Malick and Denis, there is something of the classic John Ford kind of Western, of Bresson, Bruno Dumont, even Bela Tarr. Though it's been some years since film school, Shank is still perhaps a little bit more an amalgam of his cinematic masters than an individual voice. The film is stifling and full of itself. Does Shank both mythologize and demonize the rural cowboy life too much for our times? Nonetheless this is a striking, assured and deeply committed debut feature. The images by Hichame Alaouie and Antoine Paroutyare are superb. Vincent Rottiers impressively takes on the protagonist's burden of stubborn hopelessness, his face saying it all, and the other performances are fine. Co-scrpting is by Vincent Poymiro. Music by the Belgian group DAAU is restrained but strong.

Last Winter/L'hiver dernier debuted at Venice and was shown at Roterdam and other festivals, and opened theatrically in France in February 2012 and Belgium in March and comes to the Netherlands in May. In France it got fairly good reviews (Allociné 3.1), many recognizing this as a strong directorial debut. But as the Variety critic noted, it's is strictly an art house film -- one for those patient with understatement. It is also included in the San Francisco International Film Festival and a contender there for the New Directors Prize.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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