Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 04, 2015 8:40 am 
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Choosing when to die poses problems for others in this French film based on a memoir

In The Final Lessom/La dernière leçon, Pascale Pouzadoux, adapting a book by co-scriptor Laurent de Bartillat, broaches a solemn topic indeed: an elderly woman's decision to end her own life, despite the emotional pain this causes her son, grandson, daughter and others. The subject is the issue of the right to die. This film, based on the true account of a similar experience of Noëlle Châtelet, sister of Lionel Jospin, takes up a profound and troubling theme.

But as dealt with here, it seems, alas, more material for TV drama than serious cinema. In its succession of funny, touching, angry, desperate, and solemn moments, inter-cut with one too many flashbacks and montages, The Final Lesson not only risks banality, but founders, running out of energy and drive before it's halfway through. This despite a brave and splendid turn as the tired-of-life Marguerite by 83-year-old Jewish mother specialist and TV-series vet Marthe Villalonga as well as the always authentic Sandrine Bonnaire as her friend, soulmate, and daughter Diane; Gilles Cohen as Clovis, Diane's supportive and neutral hubby; and Antoine Duléry as Marguerite's son Pierre. Grégoire Montana is touchingly affectionate as Marguerite's loving grandson and surfing enthusiast, Max. But Max as presented is too much the conventional movie mop-head teenager, and Cohen's scenes as a chef are irrelevant, though not as much so as a disposable interlude in which Diane is suddenly carried off on a motorcycle ride and a jog with a handsome male nurse from Marguerite's time in hospital.

The momentum problem is one issue. Another is representing multiple points of view. Too little information is given about Marguerite's life, which it's hinted has been a seriously productive one as a midwife. Flashbacks of her playing in the back yard as a young woman with Diane as a child don't help. The authority and credibility of Villalonga as an actress help a lot, but cannot make up for the fact that we don't know who Marguerite is, other than a stubborn old lady who is overweight, has some trouble walking, and is not very able to cope by herself when she goes back to live in her old apartment. At a celebration of her birthday, Marguerite braves many interruptions to give a speech in which she announces her decision, giving the exact date when she has decided to die. She has concluded that her life is over, and she will only be a burden on herself and others if she goes on longer. She has chosen a time to die, and it is only weeks away. By herself, Marguerite is attended in the daytime by the unbearably lovable earth-mother type Victoria (Sabine Pakora). Victoria is a big lady herself, and a charmer, full of worldly wisdom laid on thick. Victoria makes no judgments, content to sing the occasional lullaby and offer the occasional cuddle.

Left on her own, Marguerite has several disasters. Notably, she falls and can't get up, and the food she had cooking on the stove burns and fills the apartment with smoke. Max and Diane intervene in time, and Marguerite has to spend time in the hospital. There, Pierre insists that she be put on antidepressants, which he thinks will solve the problem. Diane insists her mom isn't at all depressed, just determined. In the next bed is a man incapacitated by a stroke who says that if he could get hold of "the little pill" he'd do away with himself without a thought.

Marguerite herself however must have many a thought, because her family members are so troubled by her decision that she seriously wavers. Her son Pierre, who remains furiously, unrepentantly angry at her, traumatizes her with a nasty visit. Poor Marguerite. But is her decision justified? The filmmakers don't have the severity or bravery to convince us of that, and in this their treatment is too superficial. Someone with the courage and gravitas of Michael Haneke in Amour would need to take on the subject. Here there are many Hallmark moments and a good number of jokey ones, but the overall impression remains at once grim and unsatisfying.

The Final Lessom/La dernière leçon, 105 mins., debuted as the Festival du Film Francophone d'Angoulême in August, also showing at Busan in October. It opened theatrically in France 4 November 2015. Screened for this review on that day at UGC Danton, Paris. Local reviews were mediocre, though not terrible (AlloCiné press rating 3.2 based on 10 reviews).

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