Classical music fans have learned to anticipate the infamous hammer blows that fall at the end of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, waiting with bated breath for the percussionist, who stands with giant mallet raised, to deliver the tragic strokes of fate: one, two and (if the orchestra is so inclined) a third and final crippling boom to smite whatever hope remained. The bastard son of a celebrated symphony conductor, 13-year-old Victor knows nothing about classical music at the outset of Alix Delaporte’s “The Last Hammer Blow,” but fate has already been plenty cruel in his short time on Earth. Art-film aficionados may assume they can tell where the narrative is headed in this modest French drama, and yet the curiously noncommercial film defiantly resists sentimentality while teasing whether tragedy will strike again as the headstrong teen attempts to reconnect with his estranged father.
It would have been so easy to shape young Victor’s dilemma into the sort of experience that coaxes tears, but Delaporte instead challenges her audience with a slightly more distant approach. Using an observation-driven style reminiscent of the work of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, who have often favored young, lower-class protagonists in such films as “Rosetta” and “The Son,” Delaporte presents Victor’s story as a series of fragments, arranged in linear order, yet also just elliptically enough that it takes a certain effort to put the pieces together — and even then, the ambiguities are such that we leave the cinema deprived of the anticipated catharsis, but loaded with questions for possible discussion.
The project reunites actors Clotilde Hesme and Gregory Gadebois, the two leads of her debut, “Angele and Tony,” and though the pair are once again excellent (as Victor’s birth parents, who haven’t seen each other since that tryst more than 14 years earlier), everything depends on newcomer Romain Paul. Bright and promising in both school and soccer, his otherwise handsome face etched in a scowl that comes from carrying more responsibility than reasonable for someone so young, Paul’s Victor can’t face the thought of what he’ll do once his single mother, Nadia (Hesme), dies. As it is, they’re barely getting by, living in a trailer by the beach outside Montpellier. For Victor, the timing seems anything but accidental that his father, renowned conductor Samuel Rovinski (Gadebois), should choose this moment to return to town, leading the local symphony in Mahler’s Sixth.
Overcome with curiosity, Victor forces his way into the opera house one afternoon for a closer look, slowly working up the courage to speak to this imposing stranger — a stern, over-serious fellow with nary an ounce of the social skills J.K. Simmons’ baton waver demonstrated in “Whiplash.” Gadebois is more the James Gandolfini type: hulking, stony and not the sort of guy you want to make angry. Still, he entertains the idea that this kid might possess some of his musical talent, hesitantly agreeing to spend time with Victor, though none of it the picture-postcard sort from which dewy Hallmark movies are made. Here, the characters are grasping for whatever connection they can get, and even Victor’s hesitant flirtation with a Spanish neighbor Luna (Mireia Vilapuig) seems headed for heartbreak.
As in Delaporte’s previous film, it feels as if there’s a second screenplay running parallel to what sparse action and dialogue she instructs her cast to perform onscreen — one that’s all about subtlety, subtext and the emotions masked behind the lines themselves. (Even music is used sparingly, however surprising for a film set partly in that world.) Like real people, the characters wear their poker faces most of the time. In Victor’s case, we find ourselves growing increasingly desperate to see the earnest young man crack a smile, waiting nearly an hour for the first hint of happiness in his expression. But as in Mahler, the hammer looms — although a small glimmer of hope remains. The composer revised his Sixth Symphony, leaving it to the conductor’s discretion whether to play the third tragic blow.