It’s telling that noted French film critic, helmer and part-time thesp Noel Simsolo has a small role in “Last Screening,” because helmer Laurent Achard’s third feature plays like a private joke best shared among movie buffs. Ostensibly a psychological thriller about a cinema projectionist-cum-serial-killer who’s more than a few reels short of a full feature, pic self-satisfyingly riffs on “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom,” among many others, but is ultimately little more than an accomplished but empty formalist exercise, devoid of the genuine feeling that distinguished Achard’s previous, “Demented.” Further fest play looks likely, as well as a niche domestic release.
Creepy loner Sylvain (Achard regular Pascal Cervo) lives in the basement of a small Parisian repertory house, where he does nearly every job from selling the tickets and projecting the film to cleaning the seats afterward, although lucky for him, it’s not the sort of place that sells popcorn. In fact, the joint shows only one movie every day, Jean Renoir’s “French Cancan” (1954), to a handful of loyal customers, such as Monsieur Paul (Simsolo) and pretty aspiring thesp Manon (Charlotte van Kemmel), who’s sweet on Sylvain.
The cinema’s owner (Nicolas Pignon) plans to sell the place, which will leave Sylvain not only unemployed and homeless, but with nowhere to display his secret gallery of movie-star headshots, to which he affixes human ears, earrings included, harvested from women he stabs to death during his after-hours walks around the city. Victims include a majorette (Corinne Lamborot), a market-stall saleswoman (Mireille Roussel) and a kind-hearted taxi driver (Brigitte Sy), among others.
Heavy-handed flashbacks reveal Sylvain’s psychosis stems from a traumatic upbringing by a loopy mother (Karole Rocher, “Polisse”), who was herself obsessed with films and would hit Sylvain as a child (played by Austin Morel) if he forgot lines of dialogue she forced him to memorize, seemingly for auditions. Maman Dearest’s actions have apparently forged the monster we meet, although the pic isn’t any more interested in psychology than it is in realism, given how implausibly long Sylvain’s murder spree goes on without consequence.
As he demonstrated with “Demented,” helmer/co-writer Achard has a fondness for finding insanity wriggling under quotidian, seemingly harmless rocks, and is effective at milking long, slow shots for suspense. There’s no doubt about the high quality of the technique on display here, from the wink-wink key lighting to the symphonic use of source sound. However, the material is so inherently silly that the style with which it’s executed ends up looking meretricious and facile.
With a fierce, maniacal stare and an ability to look unsettling when doing nothing more than standing still, Cervo once again proves an impressive presence who nearly manages to save the movie. Other members of the ensemble also turn in good, standard perfs, with those playing Sylvain’s victims particularly meriting praise for producing singularly harrowing screams of pain at the appropriate moments.