VIFF’15: ‘The Last Hammer Blow’

The Last Hammer Blow
Written by Alix Delaporte, Alain Le Henry
Directed by Alix Delaporte
France 2015

There are both too many stories of depression laced lives and too many happily ever afters. Too few allow the tragedy of life to run its course while acknowledging the undercurrent of joy and at times fleeting happiness that bubbles up from below. The Last Hammer Blow begins as another simple, dour look at the struggles of 13 year old Victor (Romain Paul in a star making performance) and his cancer stricken mother Nadia (Clotilde Hesme), as they struggle to survive in a trailer by a remote beach. Having never met his father, and with a mother who needs more care than she can give, Victor has about as much weight on his shoulders as Atlas did, which he accepts with an emotionless grimace, letting fate determine his place in life.

Elements of the Dardennes are at play here (such as The Kid With A Bike), although the lack of overt references or homage imply that it may simply be a result of their gargantuan influence on European contemporary cinema.  Nevertheless, The Last Hammer Blow has a similar fleeting sense of melancholic beauty seeping in the corners of its characters’ less than ideal lives and social class. Instead of revelling in the squalor of their home (which the film divulges in only once,  when prospective buyers come to appraise it), it revels in the beach and nature around it, silhouetting the family against a glorious sunset or highlighting a playful moment of cliff jumping by a waterfall.

The last Hammer Blow_Nadia and Victor

The saving grace of The Last Hammer Blow is its joy and music – specifically the use of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony as an emotional dowsing rod. When Victor’s father Samuel Rovinski (Grégory Gadebois) a famous conductor, returns to the town for a local symphony’s rendition of Mahler’s Sixth, Victor finds himself visiting him repeatedly, despite his father’s carefully curated statement at their first meeting, “I have no son.” Yet the two begin to bond, as Samuel shares his music with Victor, who eagerly listens and soaks it up. At first he doesn’t know what to do with music, how to react to it – and Samuel coaches him to allow images and emotions to float to the surface as he listens. Montages of Victor playing soccer to the symphony, smiling (in one of few instances where he does), synthesizes the emotional and visual interpretation perfectly; it’s not just the audience seeing the montage, but the film implies that playing soccer is Victor’s own emotional response to the music itself.

The film’s title, which remains a mystery to the uninitiated (I admit to thinking it implied a violent twist), is a reference to the hammer blows delivered by the percussionist at the end of the symphony: strikes of fate which can number two or a doomed third, depending on the conductor’s interpretation of the music. Thankfully, the film introduces the concept but is not determined to follow its course all the way, avoiding too blunt a metaphor upon which to poise its ending. Instead, The Last Hammer Blow naturally eases out, allowing fate to dissipate rather than wait with baited breath for its decision.

The Last Hammer Blow_Samuel and Victor

While unlikely to find much success outside the festival circuit, since there is little on the surface level to distinguish it from dozens of other minor films, The Last Hammer Blow has a surprisingly subtlety and open-ended approach to the nebulous gray area between childhood and adulthood. Instead of chronicling a teenager struggling to take up the mantle of manhood, the film shifts the narrative to allow him to remove the world from his shoulders and learn to live and smile as a child again.

The Vancouver International Film Festival takes place from September 24 – October 9, 2015. Visit the official website for more information.

VIFF 2015

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