'The First, The Last' ('Les premiers, les derniers'): Berlin Review

THE FIRST, THE LAST still - H 2016
Courtesy of Kris DeWitte/Berlinale
A deeply personal work that's flawed but fascinating.

The fourth feature from Belgian actor-director Bouli Lanners co-stars Albert Dupontel, Suzanne Clement, Max von Sydow and Michael Lonsdale.

Two grouchy bounty hunters, two oafish lovers on the run, two wise old men and one Jesus — no explanatory adjectives necessary — are the improbable protagonists of The First, The Last, the fourth feature from Francophone Belgian iconoclast Bouli Lanners (Eldorado, The Giants). Literally overcast and also metaphorically darker than his previous outings and often more dryly absurd than absurdly amusing, this is the kind of conceptual film that feels like it could be a transitional work in the actor-director’s oeuvre, with both the positives and the negatives qualities that that term implies. Already released in France late January, this Berlinale Panorama title will probably be too bleak to follow in the footsteps of Lanners’s most commercially successful titles, though film aficionados will definitely want to catch this any way they can.

The grey-haired, scraggly-bearded Gilou (Lanners) and the dark, Zappa-sporting Cochise (Albert Dupontel, 9 Month Stretch) are two rough-hewn colleagues who’ve been hired by a rich guy who wants his cell phone back because it contains some very important files. To achieve that goal, he’s given the duo a tracking device, though the problem is that it can only receive a signal when the phone is turned on. However, the petty thieves who have stolen it, the couple Willy (David Murgia, Jesus from The Brand New Testament) and Esther (Aurore Broutin), mostly keep it turned off, even though they don’t seem aware of the device's explosive contents.

The setup of the film, which Lanners also wrote, is a pretty straightforward mash-up of crime and chase elements, though what he finally ends up doing with it is something altogether more singular. The director takes his time — a little too much time — to move everything into place, initially jumping back and forth between Gilou and Cochise and the two homeless youngsters on the run.

The film looks painterly from its first shots, with Willy and Esther introduced, for example, walking atop an abandoned, elevated concrete monorail track in the flatlands of the Beauce region, southwest of Paris. At first they look like tiny ants difficultly moving forward against an agitated sky in an extreme wide shot that’s all about the horizontals before Bouli’s regular cinematographer, Jean-Paul De Zaeytijd, moves onto the monorail for a backwards-moving frontal view. But purely in narrative terms, the film’s first act feels rather formulaic, even though the director starts introducing elements that are rather odd quite early on, such as the fact that the lovers believe the end is nigh and then bump into an emaciated and bearded man (the always welcome character actor Philippe Rebbot) who casually introduces himself as Jesus.

Things grow more interesting and complex in the film’s busy midsection with the introduction of a woman (Suzanne Clement, from Mommy) at a gas station who befriends Cochise; an elderly, very kind but also very slow employee (French veteran actor Michael Lonsdale) of a rundown hotel who tells Gilou that “living isn’t just breathing” and a just as elderly undertaker (Bergman icon Max von Sydow) who is asked to deal with a dead homeless man the two bounty hunters stumble upon when looking for that damned phone. (Von Sydow’s clean-shaven presence unfortunately ruined the possibility of calling this film Facial Hair: The Movie.) To top everything off, there’s an over-agitated warehouse guard (Lionel Abelanski) and a demented ringleader (Serge Riaboukine, with a Snape-like hairdo) hell-bent on revenge.

As the various plotlines overlap and the main characters grow more full-bodied — the ace supporting actors all play stock characters — it becomes increasingly clear that the whole crime story is a classical MacGuffin and that the film is nothing less than a rather atypical meditation on life and death. If the title isn't a give-away, by the scene Gilou ends up in the hospital next to Jesus, who has been shot by Willy, it should be dawning on audiences that they're not in genre-loving Kansas anymore.

In this context, some of the random-seeming detours of the plot suddenly start to feel like life-like coincidences rather than potential narrative liabilities. Though the tone is generally akin to the film’s cloudy and often borderline-stormy weather, there are unexpected moments of grace, such as when von Sydow sings a gravelly funeral song. There are also some touching conversations, such as when Clement’s matronly character tries to talk to the shell-shocked Esther in a dingy hotel bathroom (another unexpected occurrence since it’s easily the most female-centered scene in all of the director’s work).

But the most touching of all remains Lanners’ gentle giant Gilou, who has to navigate his own health problems and life’s curveballs in search of the meaning of it all. There’s a sense throughout this is a deeply personal film for the filmmaker, one he’s really made for himself rather than an audience. It demonstrates a more introspective streak and a willingness to go to darker places than in his previous works, though some of the elements of his earlier, often more wryly comic work are present in especially the oddball gallery of supporting characters. Though there are a few plotholes and narrative loose ends along the way, the characters all seem to have reached their destinations by the film’s end.

Like Eldorado, visually The First, The Last often taps into the Western canon, with vast and turbulent widescreen landscapes that help suggest something about the inner struggles of the characters. Pascal Humbert’s score is similarly attuned to trappings of the genre.

Production companies: Versus, ADCB Films, Prime Time, VOO, BE TV, RTBF

Cast: Bouli Lanners, Albert Dupontel, Michael Lonsdale, Suzanne Clement, David Murgia, Aurore Broutin, Max Von Sydow, Philippe Rebbot, Serge Riaboukine, Lionel Abelanski, Virgile Bramly

Writer-Director: Bouli Lanners

Producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart, Catherine Bozorgan

Director of photography: Jean-Paul De Zaeytijd

Production designer: Paul Rouschop

Costume designer: Elise Ancion

Editor: Ewin Ryckaert

Music: Pascal Humbert

Casting: Aurelie Gulchard, Josepgine Sien

Sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 98 minutes