“It’s called tragic but don’t let’s snivel,” says a character in director Alix Delaporte’s new film The Last Hammer Blow (2014), a refreshing and perfectly restrained coming-of-age tale which enters the running for the Golden Lion at Venice. Romain Paul plays Victor, a young lad living with his mother Nadia (Clotilde Hesme) in a caravan park by the sea near Montpelier. He spends his time playing football – he’s talented and his coach encourages him to prepare for some important trials coming up – and tutoring the son of a neighbouring Spanish family in French, which incidentally gives him the opportunity to glimpse the boy’s surly older sister, Luna (Mireia Vilapuig), for whom he has a crush.
Life would be idyllic for our young protagonist were it not for the fact his mother is suffering from cancer, possibly terminal. With his future so uncertain, Victor has the additional confusion of the sudden arrival of his father, Samuel Rovinski (Grégory Gadebois), a famous conductor, back in his hometown to conduct a performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Victor decides to confront his father who has had nothing to do with the boy and only recently learned that he has a son. Initially, there’s some resistance – Rovinski denies even having a son – but slowly the two begin to warily regard each other with mutual respect. As the conductor struggles to make sense of the score and to communicate his vision to the orchestra, Victor begins to unravel his his hopes, his fears and pre-emptive grief.
Only Delaporte’s second feature film following 2010’s Angel & Tony, The Last Hammer Blow demonstrates prodigious maturity and tact. Skillfully sidestepping the lachrymose possibilities of the story, Delaporte and co-scenarist Alain Le Henry concentrate on the positive. Money is tight, but poverty isn’t the issue. School is being skipped but when we see Victor there it’s obvious that the teachers are attentive and approachable. Victor has people who love and support him, not only his doting mother, but the Spanish family who celebrate his birthday, the football coach (Farid Bendali) who takes a fatherly interest in him. Even Rovinski – a bearish, emotionally stunted man with little understanding of people – quickly warms to the boy, tutoring him in music and through that giving him another way of understanding his feelings of guilt and injustice. The intimacy they establish is touchingly revealed in a lunch scene when Victor tells his father of a dream he has describing how he scored a goal. “What sport do you play?” the out of touch father asks
As they cross the road, Victor steps out too quickly and the father pulls him back. Delaporte does not linger on the moment of contact, but her film is full of such gestures and moments, telling us much more than the words her characters utter. Luna signals her affection for the boy by giving him a haircut – which obliquely is also a gesture of affection and solidarity on the part of the son to his mother. Part of the charm of the film comes also in the use of music, with extended rehearsal scenes that recall a less acerbic, more classical version of Whiplash (2014). As Mahler’s phrase is played and reworked and perfected, there’s a sense that not only is Victor understanding his problems in the light of the music, but that Rovinski is hearing the music for the first time through the ears of his son. The Last Hammer Blow refers to the possibility in Mahler’s symphony of fate hitting you twice or three times and Delaporte preserves this openness, without resorting to snivelling.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.