It’s a strange thing to watch a movie that truly (and almost literally) believes it will never be seen; a movie that was written, financed, and shot with the bone-deep conviction that it would eventually be released to great silence; a movie that isn’t just at peace with its uncommerciality, but also consciously draws its power from the advance knowledge that it’s destined to disappear amid the boundless ocean of streaming content, not dumped into the water so much as scattered along its surface like ashes. A post-apocalyptic cri de coeur that suggests the death of cinema and the end of human civilization are two sides of the same coin, Jonathan Nossiter’s muddled yet vividly elegiac “Last Words” (adapted from the Santiago Amigorena novel “Mes Derniers Mots”) offers an end-of-the-world lament for the natural beauty that we’ve surrendered to consumerism, and for the shared experiences we’ve forfeited in the name of personal convenience.
On a more basic level, Nossiter’s film offers two hours of watching a supremely grizzled Nick Nolte play the last projectionist on Earth: a former director who fled Hollywood during the fall of America (which apparently happens during the 2030s or ’40s), renamed himself Shakespeare, and moved into a subterranean bunker somewhere in Europe where he could spend the end of days watching hand-cranked screens of “Tampopo” and “Sherlock Jr.” in peace. Alas, as Shakespeare tells us, and anyone reading this already knows: “Watching movies with strangers was always the better way.”
Luckily for Shakespeare, a stranger is about to join him in the dark of his underground cinema, but don’t assume that “Last Words” is heading towards “Cinema Paradiso” territory. This is a purely conceptual work, more numbing than narrative, and Nossiter — a part-time filmmaker and full-time farmer who intends to cut his losses and devote the rest of his life to agriculture — is in no mood for easy sentiment. “Last Words” shines a certain light on movie magic, I suppose, but we know from the start that the darkness wins out in the end.
To put it in plainer language than the film itself ever does: “Last Words” regards the shift from celluloid to digital and movie theaters to streaming as a tell-tale sign that our society is irreversibly fraying apart at the seams. A more focused version of whatever Nossiter is doing here might demand to be enjoyed in a crowded room full of other cinephiles; as it stands, the most poignant thing about his plotless farewell to frames is that the precious few people who ever bother to rent it on VOD will do so alone, half-bored and acutely aware of the absent nowness that comes with seeing a film together. Somehow, the climax of “Sullivan’s Travels” — all of those poor souls laughing along to a simple cartoon — is even more bittersweet when you watch it by yourself.
In “Last Words,” the final people on Earth huddle under the stars and watch the final reel of Preston Sturges’ masterpiece as Shakespeare projects it against the walls of an ancient Greek temple (where the sound is coming from is anyone’s guess, but this isn’t the kind of movie that encourages you to sweat the logistics). The year is 2085, Africa is underwater, the rest of the world is a ruin, and the small handful of survivors have formed a utopian community in the wasteland once known as Europe. No one there has much hope for rekindling humanity — the garden crops they grow are poisoned, the only pregnant woman is a hedonistic 75-year-old Charlotte Rampling, and most of the people have been so conditioned to eat synthetic food that the very concept of foraging appears to elude them — but everyone seems happy enough to enjoy some old movies while they wait for the end.
And we know the end is near, because Nossiter’s young narrator talks to us from two years in the future, where he’s the last man alive (Kal is played by Gambian refugee Kalipha Touray, quietly winsome in his first screen role). “Not special,” he points out, “just the last.” Be that as it may, the opening minutes of “Last Words” tease a more traditional take on armageddon time than the one we eventually get. Set in the rubble of Paris — crisp cinematography and rich production design helping to underscore all the effort and artistry that went into this death rattle of a film — the first chapter of Nossiter’s story chronicles how Kal crossed paths with Shakespeare. It isn’t long, however, before the “Children of Men”-flavored suspense of these early scenes gives way to something, uh, completely different, as the two men decide to start a little subterranean movie club and then wheelbarrow their equipment across the continent Tilda Swinton–style in search of a community with whom to share it. The one they find and rather uneventfully remain in until extinction is populated by a combination of naked extras, character actors like Alba Rohrwacher and Stellan Skarsård, and whoever else still has some time to kill.
“Last Words” dilutes into a ponderous new age muddle once our boys are welcomed into the hippie hideaway that will become their final home, as barbaric flashbacks melt into pointed musings about the purpose of art (“We need to invent something between birth and death,” Shakespeare muses) and the value of continuing to make and present it at the end of the world. In lieu of character development — for which the apocalypse isn’t a particularly conducive environment — Kal develops a hobby as the commune’s resident documentarian.
The group builds a camera, and at one point even makes their own celluloid so that Kal can continue to shoot (the digital world has been erased by ecological disasters, and the cinema only survives as a physical mechanism). Much like “Last Words” itself, Kal’s film is conceived as a time capsule for future generations or whatever future lifeforms try to tell Earth’s story with the help of its enduring relics, but also as a reminder to the people around him that they’re still alive. It’s a fact these survivors need to affirm for each other, which they do with nightly screenings of everything from “Un Chien Andalou” to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The flickering images of these old movies warm Kal’s new friends with a campfire glow, the content less important than the experience of basking in it together. By the time they get to “Sullivan’s Travels,” I could only think of how wasteful it was that comedy became the first genre to get flushed out of theaters.
Nossiter believes that stories themselves run a distant second to the primitive act of telling them, which is another reason why “Last Words” is so eager to trade the sentimentality of something like “Hugo” (a masterpiece!) for a slow cinema groove that feels like watching the end of the world in real time. The wistful film that results is streaked with fleeting moments of levity and pleasure, but also shapeless in a way that renders Kit as an avatar for his director, both men rolling their cameras at the sunset because they don’t know what else to do with their despair. Then again, Shakespeare is just as pointed a mouthpiece for Nossiter. “I came here to dream the beauty of film before I died,” he growls at one point, and “Last Words” is nothing if not the work of someone living that dream with his eyes wide open.
Gravitas Ventures will release “Last Words” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, December 17.