Last Screening: a slasher for film buffs
by Fabien Lemercier
02/12/2011 - Since 1999 and in the space of three feature films, Laurent Achard (pictured) has clearly established himself as one of France’s most talented directors, with the technical quality of his directing and the evocative power of his stories putting him well above average among his contemporaries. But his prickly character and his attraction to the darker areas of the human psyche have hardly helped his career along in an industry where financial backers often tend to prefer safe, more or less formatted subjects. The director, who won the Tiger Award at Rotterdam in 1999 for More Than Yesterday, Best Director at Locarno and the Jean Vigo Award in 2006 for Demented [trailer, film focus], has nonetheless managed to overcome these obstacles by altering the notion of genre cinema with his fascinating film Last Screening [trailer] (unveiled in competition at Locarno last summer), which will be launched on Wednesday, December 7 in French theatres by Epicentre Films on a 50-print run.
Approached by producer Sylvie Pialat (Les Films du Worso) to make a low-budget film (€1.53m) intended for Canal +’s "French Frayeur" line, Achard seized the opportunity to play with the codes imposed by the genre (the evil deeds of a slasher, a killer armed with a knife) and make a dark feature that is also a homage to cinema and a parable about the predicted death of movie theatres. For Sylvain, the anti-hero of Last Screening works as a projectionist and cashier at the Cinéma Empire, an arthouse cinema in a small provincial town, an establishment on the point of closing down ("it’s no longer profitable," explains the owner). Showing at the cinema are Jean Renoir’s French Cancan, Gus van Sant’s Last Days, Buster Keaton’s The General, Paul Vecchiali’s Women Women, Claude Chabrol’s Betty and Chantal Akerman’s The Captive.
Sylvain (played by a flawless Pascal Cervo, the director’s regular collaborator) lives in the cinema’s concrete-surfaced, run-down basement, where he has set up a strange mausoleum with walls covered in photos of Hollywood stars from the past. This place of worship dedicated to actresses plays host to a dramatic ritual. For by night, Sylvain conceals himself under a wide hood and paces the town in search of female victims whom he kills (off-camera) before cutting off their ears (a nod to Pialat’s Van Gogh and Lynch’s Blue Velvet) in order to retrieve their earrings in memory of a traumatic event from his childhood (revisited in flashbacks with Karole Rocher playing the mother). This parallel murderous identity is threatened by the planned closure of the cinema which Sylvain tries hard to ignore, continuing the screenings as if nothing was wrong, in a denial of reality that will lead to the tragic collision of his two identities.
Superbly filmed with the limpid sobriety that characterises Achard’s style (still camera, striking close-ups, subtle games of light and darkness, clever use of the cinema’s glass doors and the steamed-up window of a van where a murder is committed, a soundtrack with underlying significance during the scenes of violence, etc), Last Screening discreetly displays cinematic mastery beneath a classic genre narrative (when will the murderer be found out?). But the deliberate gap distancing it from realism (there is no police investigation), the choice of a rather minimalist and melancholic psychology, and the film lovers’ treasure hunt that underlies the film make it an astonishing and unique work, characteristic of the director to whom the words of Jean Gabin in French Cancan perfectly apply (spoken in a clip included in Last Screening): "In the jungle, animals group together in clans, in families. I’m different". Let’s hope that perhaps Achard, who gladly presents himself as "a little soldier in the show business world", will manage to find a way to express his talent with greater financial resources in the future.
(Translated from French)