Review: LAST WORDS, Final Reel at the End of the World
It's not hard to imagine the end of humanity these days; between the pandemic and environmental disaster, I'm sure I'm not the only one who has, at least in their head, made plans if those days shoudl arrive in their lifetime, where they would go, who they would want to be with, what they would do if there truly was no future. Would you stay where you are? Try to travel somewhere that meant something to you, or seek out loved ones? What would be the last memories you want to have?
American filmmaker Jonathan Nossitor (Sunday, Signs & Wonders) is the latest director to tackle the apocalypse world in his first fiction feature in a decade. Last Words takes a somewhat intimate look at what those wishes might be, how that finality would weigh on those last humans left, and what are the memories we take, the pieces of ourselves we leave behind, when there will be no one to leave them to.
The world is, for all intents and purposes, dead; the rain is poisoned, most inland water has disappeared, the seas are barren of life, and most humans are dead either from a pandemic or this environmental decay. Kal (Kalipha Touray), one of the last humans born after the disaster, has ended up in Paris; he and his sister find a old apartment filled with film reels, stamped from the cinematheque of Bologna. After his sister is killed, he walks the barren landscape to Bologna, where he finds Shakespeare (Nick Nolte), a filmmaker who ended up sheltered in Italy. Shakespeare just wants to die alone, but inspired by Kal's youth, they decide to take a projector, camera, a few old film reels, and follow signs to the possibly last human encampment in Athens.
Given what we already see in the world around us, Nossitor only needs a few short lines of dialogue and a few key shots for us to understand that this is, indeed, the last few breaths of humanity. He (thankfully) avoids too much clichéd images of violence and man slipping into barbarity, instead focusing on those who have chosen, or at least found themselves, in this odd community in the last green corner of the world. This is less about how to keep people alive in the last days, and more about what will make the last days worth living.
Stellan Skarsgård is there as Zyberski, a physican who ended up in this place, not a leader but a kind of mediator; there's also Baltk (Charlotte Rampling), who seems to be making it her mission to enjoy sexual pleasures, though even that pleasure, or much else, eludes them. Dima (Alba Rohrwacher) is making some sort of garden in honour of her brother, murdered on the road. Kal revs up the projector for what is arguably the perfect outdoor cinema; images of Buster Keaton, old animation, and other tales bring moments of laughter and joy to these last people. There are acts of beauty, acts of despair, acts of terrible mercy.
What would that look like? What would you want to experience in your final days, if you found a safe place, free from violence, with good people around you? There are many cultural forms that could bring joy in final days that arguably require less equipment, such as poetry and dance, even theatre. But who can deny the power of the movie image, the replication of what we can envision in our minds? Something that can take us out of ourselves, and at the same time fill our eyes, brains, and hearts with such emotion. Perhaps that's what we need for the end.
Kal also is able to make a rudimentary camera, using the last film stock to make the last film; a home movie, of course, of the residents of this last village. As more illness slowly takes them away one by one, Kal is adament that he must record everything. But for whom? What meaning does recording who we are, and were, matter if there is no one to watch it? Touray is the most perfect heart of this film about despair and love at a place with no hope; his wide open eyes and smile make you, like the other characters, want to do, to try, to make memories while they still can.
I notice that this review has me asking a lot of rhetorical, rather philosophical questions. I feel this is the right kind of response to a film like Last Words, a story that sees the world go out not with a bang or a whimper, but with quiet companionship, small pleasures; the ending is profound in its sadness, because there is no alternative, but we can be there for the last reel.
Last Words will release in theaters and on demand in the USA on December 17th.
- Jonathan Nossiter
- Santiago Amigorena
- Jonathan Nossiter
- Nick Nolte
- Kalipha Touray
- Charlotte Rampling