Le Dernier des Fous

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

(No) Fun on the Farm

Litte Martin (Julien Cochelin) in a foreshadowing scene.

Called the “first great film of the year 2007” by the magazine Les Inrockuptibles (whose critics are among the hardest-to-please in the French press), Laurent Achard’s Le Dernier des Fous tells its story from the point of view of Martin (Julien Cochelin), an affection-starved 11-year-old who lives on a farm in the picturesque French countryside.

His family’s handsome stone manor house (with a depressing interior that seems not to have been redecorated since the 1950s) contains much unhappiness, however. His mother (Dominique Reymond) is locked up in her bedroom and refuses to see anyone but the maid, Malika (Fettouma Bouamari), who brings the mother her meals and medication, cleans up after her and is the only one who can calm her when she explodes into terrifying screaming fits in the middle of the night. We never find out exactly what is supposed to be wrong with this madwoman (a favorite figure in French cinema).

The down-to-earth Malika is the only pure ray of light and point of stability in Martin’s lonely little life. His ineffectual father (Jean-Yves Chatelais) and tough paternal grandmother (Annie Cordy) – the former obsessed with his wife’s illness and the latter with the failing farm business – basically ignore him. His anger-filled, heavy-drinking older brother, Didier (Pascal Cervo, who gives the only truly powerful performance in the film), alternately gives and withholds his affection.

We follow the strange, rather creepy figure of little Martin as he trots around, stiff as a board, and slips into dark spaces to spy on the others, a habit that leads him to discover his brother’s secret life. Martin, whose face is always impassive, is constantly being confronted with death, both real and pretend (Is Didier just playing dead or is he really dead? Has Martin’s playmate drowned when she stays underwater in a lake for an extremely long time or is she just good at holding her breath?). Everyone except Malika disappoints or abandons him. After a while, Martin just can’t take it any more.

In spite of all the foreshadowing, however, the film feels strangely loose and lacking in suspense and ambiance. We wait patiently, slightly bored as incident piles upon incident, for the denouement, which doesn’t surprise or shock when it comes because it is so thoroughly expected (except for an out-of-place surrealistic touch: the mother’s sudden revival, as unexplained as her illness).

This grim film, based on the 1967 novel The Last of the Crazy People by Canadian writer Timothy Findley, won the Prix Jean-Vigo and the prize for best direction at the Locarno Film Festival in 2006, which seems odd considering that the director’s pretentious style has managed to suck the impact out of what could have been a powerful tragedy.

Great film? I don’t think so.

Heidi Ellison

© 2007 Paris Update

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