Much of “The Last Hammer Blow,” the latest film from French writer-director Alix Delaporte, features scenes of its young protagonist, Victor (Romain Paul), in transit. He walks, runs, scooters, and hitches from place to place, never staying still, constantly on the move. This is probably an apt representation of his mental state—roving and restless. Victor doesn’t have much stability in his life: his mother (Clotilde Hesme) is sick, fragile, and dead broke, and the two live in a camper among a surf tribe of sorts at the beach. She’s prone to impulsive decisions and Victor is starting to realize he needs to take some responsibility for her.
At the same time, he’s also seeking out his father, an accomplished conductor in town to conduct Mahler’s 6th symphony. Victor starts stalking him at rehearsals, but the gruff Samuel (Gregory Gadebois) isn’t having it. Victor stays on him like a fly though, wanting something more than just the check the man offers. Victor is also in the running for a prestigious soccer training camp too, if he would ever get to practice. The young teen’s life seems perpetually on the cusp of something that hasn’t happened yet: the training camp, his father’s acceptance, his mother’s death. Victor is constantly uneasy, almost never comfortable.
Delaporte delivers this tale in a straightforward, contemporary French arthouse style: naturalistic lighting and camera movement, subtle performances from the three leads, unobtrusive storytelling style. It’s fairly lovely, though nothing we haven’t see before. For the most part as well, this is a basic story, though it’s really more like three basic stories woven into Victor’s life: possible soccer stardom; sick, delinquent mom; searching for dad’s love. The kid never knows which one to focus on, and hence the constant roaming, constant searching for something.
The problem is that the character’s desires are never quite apparent. While in many ways this serves the themes of uncertainty and doubt, the inscrutability of the motivations makes it a bit difficult to hook into the story. Does Victor want to go to soccer training? Or live with his dad? It’s never quite clear. It’s also never clear whether his mother wants to live or not, or what his father wants. They are quite the indecisive trio. The acting style contributes to this. Romain Paul is imminently watchable on screen, and looks like a combination of a young Channing Tatum and Jean-Paul Belmondo. But his implacable expressions give away almost nothing. While this is clearly a character choice, it’s hard to guess what he wants or even how he feels when he gets it. Gadebois is similarly brusque and hard to read—like father like son.
“The Last Hammer Blow” is a fine film, though in many ways it’s hard to really connect with the characters and therefore find investment in their journeys. It’s difficult to truly empathize with their emotions when it’s never quite clear what they want. Romain Paul is definitely a talent with promise, and Delaporte is turning in quality work, to be certain. One just wishes the film had a bit more emotional resonance. [B]