French costumer takes off smoothly and then heads straight into a cinematic sandstorm.

Visually soaring, but puttering along in the drama department, French costumer “The Last Flight” takes off smoothly and then heads straight into a cinematic sandstorm. Scribe-helmer Karim Dridi’s ambitious, desert-set yarn offers a promising pitch, with real-life couple Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet playing a fearless pilot and rogue soldier crossing the Sahara in search of a missing companion. Yet with no real third act and a lack of overall credibility, the film comes to resemble its nomadic protags and never finds a true emotional oasis. Following its tepid mid-December launch in Gaul, “Flight” could land at offshore fests.

Adapted by Dridi and Pascal Arnold (“Partners”) from Sylvain Estibal’s novel, the script focuses on the book’s latter portions, which take place in 1933 and describe the search by hotheaded aviatrix Marie (Cotillard) for her downed co-pilot and eternal love, Lancaster. But given that Lancaster never appears onscreen, Marie’s passionate exploits wind up (literally) dissipating into hot air as she treks across the desert throughout the pic’s lengthy and redundant second half.

Equally problematic, though initially more gratifying, are the efforts of colonial Lt. Antoine (Canet) to pacify various Algerian tribes before his commanding officer, the antsy Vincent (Guillaume Marquet, convincing), leads the French soldiers to an attack. However, this worthy and historically significant subplot never becomes more than an excuse to bring together Marie and Antoine, while the expected faceoff between the Gauls and the locals never happens.

Whether such elements were left on the cutting-room floor (or were even shot), they are clearly what’s missing in this half-told story, which relies on its end-credits notes to provide the sense of closure that the action fails to offer.

Despite its structural flaws, the pic is somewhat kept in tow by the superb camerawork of Antoine Monod (“Khamsa”), which captures the desert landscapes (shot in Morocco) in hallucinatory widescreen compositions. Likewise, the soundtrack by Le Trio Joubran (“Adieu Gary”) makes masterly use of the Middle Eastern oud to create throbbing, emotional rhythms that give the film more resonance than the actual cast.

Indeed, the two stars seem mostly out of place among the harsh forces of nature or the more realistic tribesmen, while their characters never form a believable bond. For all his attempted ruggedness, Canet is much better when he’s in his usual smug mode than when trying, as he does here, to depict a brooding career soldier. Cotillard looks the part but rarely feels it; a scene in which she desperately tries to tame a camel verges on pure slapstick.

Helmer Dridi’s previous films, especially “Pigalle” and “Khamsa,” revealed him to be a talented director of unknown actors with a knack for portraying contemporary gloom. The fact that he’s attempted a period piece with marquee names may partially explain why this “Last Flight” has taken him so far off course.

The Last Flight

France

Production

A Gaumont release of a Gaumont, Les Films du Dauphin, France 3 Cinema production, with participation of Canal Plus, Cinecinema, France Televisions. (International sales: Gaumont, Paris.) Produced by Jean Cottin. Directed by Karim Dridi. Screenplay, Dridi, Pascal Arnold, based on the novel "Le dernier vol de Lancaster" by Sylvain Estibal.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Antoine Monod; editor, Lise Beaulieu; music, Le Trio Joubran, Chkrrr; production designer, Johann George; costume designer, Emmanuelle Pertrus; sound (Dolby Digital), Jean-Paul Mugel, Jean Gargonne, Joel Rangon; assistant director, Alain Olivieri; casting, Coralie Amedeo. Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles 4, Paris, Dec. 19, 2009. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Marion Cotillard, Guillaume Canet, Guillaume Marquet, Saidou Abtacha, Frederic Epaud, Michael Vander Meiren, Nabil Imtital, Halimata Graille, Mohamed Kounda, Mohamed Ixa.
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