Sunday 23 October 2011

At the LFF: "Last Winter"

The agricultural drama Last Winter - a debut from the American-born, French-based writer-director John Shank - is the kind of patient, unflashy, unfashionable work perhaps only our Gallic cousins would consider backing, building as it seems to on Raymond Depardon's documentary portraits of rural life: a series that has left us in little doubt that being a farmer in the modern industrialised world isn't easy, if indeed it ever has been. Johann (Vincent Rottiers) has inherited his late father's farm at a youngish age, and has been muddling along these past few years as part of a co-op. The co-op, recognising times are hard, are weighing up whether to sell up their livestock to an Italian buyer, and move on. Johann stubbornly holds out, however, insisting "I won't change the way I work", but - as with print journalists, or phone-box repairmen - there's a sense the decision really isn't his to make.

What Shank has given us, in yet another French film dealing with the ways of the working world, is an insight into the precarious existence of the contemporary farmer: Johann has holes in his roof, red figures on his balance sheet, and a mentally troubled sister (Florence Loiret Caille) to care for, and we come to wonder for how much longer he can possibly hold out. (As it is, he will be ruined not by any of the above, but another, entirely unexpected turn of events.) The few missteps Shank makes are obvious commercial concessions: Anaïs Demoustier, one of the new French cinema's interchangeable waiflings, makes an unlikely farmer's daughter, suggesting as the actress does someone who wouldn't last ten minutes away from a Pinkberry, especially when she insists (as her character does) on sleeping nude under the covers when it appears to be minus ten and plummeting outside.

Yet there's something naggingly promising in the dogged manner with which Shank pursues his own somewhat miserablist path: worth noting that the livestock appear healthier than their keepers, who are dying either literally or figuratively. It's vividly shot, however, cinematographer Hichame Alaouie displaying a particular yen for evoking fading light and frostbite - the final fugue is so elemental you can practically see the screen shivering - and very credibly performed in the main. Rottiers - who was the little kid in Les Diables not so very long ago - is shaping up as a tough, interesting presence, with his face like non-porous rock; you suspect the Dardennes or Bruno Dumont might get around to employing him one of these days, or that he'll grow into exactly the kind of craggy outcast Depardon excels in tracking down. I'd have settled for a little less mud-under-the-fingernails verisimilitude and a mite more narrative heft over the closing stretch in particular, but Last Winter does feel hard-worked, and more honestly compelling than a film about a farmer leading his cattle out to pasture and back again probably ought to be.

Last Winter screens at the Vue West End tonight (Sun 23) at 9pm, and again tomorrow at 3.15pm.

No comments:

Post a Comment