Format: DVD from Arlington Heights Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.
One of the more entertaining things about this journey is the weird little pieces of juxtaposition that happen purely by chance. Yesterday’s film was all about weird sex, and today’s film, Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle), starts with a man having sex with a blow-up doll that slowly starts deflating. This quickly expands into a bizarre post-apocalyptic vision that is shown us without explanation but that is visually fascinating nonetheless. For fans of Besson, this is where he started, and there’s plenty of evidence for how he got to where he is now.
It’s not evident immediately that we are in a post-apocalyptic world, although it becomes evident after a few minutes. As our unnamed main character (Pierre Jolivet) leaves his residence, we see not a city but a wasteland. We also notice his clothing, which looks like it’s straight out of The Road Warrior, as is the improvised weapon of our main character. A few things also become evident right away. First, everyone we see is male, which explains the blow-up doll at the start of the film. Second, no one talks. In fact, there are only two lines of dialogue in the entire film. It’s not a silent film by any stretch of the imagination, but there is no speech except for that one instance. Something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. If we needed further evidence, the rain of fish that happens in the middle section is evidence enough.
This is a stark tale of survival and little more. Humanity, reduced to this mute, womanless state doomed to die off in a generation or two is reduced to fierce competition for food, water, and safety. In fact, at the end of the first act, our hero is forced to escape from a group of goons by knocking out his windows and flying an airplane out of his apartment. Yes, this happens.
Across town, another survivor called The Brute (Jean Reno) appears to be appeasing an old man with gifts of food. It’s evident, though, that he wants to get into the old man’s house for something—we’re not sure what. Naturally, our hero and the Brute meet up right around the film’s midpoint and they battle it out, both coming off on the losing end. Our hero is wounded and loses his main weapon, but manages to get away by skewering the Brute’s foot and leaving via sewer. The rest of the film essentially is the hero meeting up with the old man (Jean Bouise) and dealing with the problems caused by the Brute as they battle for the right to simply exist another day.
Besson filmed this in luxurious, high-contrast black and white, and I can’t say but that it wasn’t an effective choice. This is a gorgeous film from end to end. While there may feel like something missing in not seeing all of the bizarre costuming and the wrecked landscape in color, I don’t feel like I missed anything with this choice in photography.
Just as impressive is the use of sound throughout. While there is virtually no speech, there is a rich sonic landscape in this film including a fantastic score throughout. It seems strange to say this about a film with this lack of actual script, but there really is a lot to listen to here—perhaps more than in a typical film because the lack of dialogue enhances the other sounds and makes them far more relevant.
There is also a good deal of humor here that indicates Luc Besson is a student of the classics. The ping-pong game, for instance, while a short moment, is really very funny. The fact that the old man decorates his world with the equivalent of the Lascaux cave paintings is another little piece of oddity that at first seems like an odd quirk but also makes a particular amount of sense in the context of the film. Our hero walking through a windstorm calls up images of Marcel Marceau, but also the climactic scene of Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Most importantly, Le Dernier Combat is brilliantly acted. It shares with many silent films the sort of exaggerated style necessary in a world without speech, but it works here for that same reason. Without speech, we need something to help us follow the action, and this is it.
Le Dernier Combat serves as Besson’s entry into the world of feature-length films, and it’s an impressive debut. Much of his later visual style, his various collaborations, and his narrative style start with this film and a thread runs from this film to his later work in a straight line. I enjoyed watching this film despite its relative difficulty because of its unexplained world and lack of traditional communication. It’s not one I’d watch a lot, but it is one that I’m very pleased to have seen.
Why to watch Le Dernier Combat: Early, weird Luc Besson. Why wouldn’t you watch it?
Why not to watch: The emphasis is on “weird.”