A young farmer in south-central France desperately attempts to hold on to a dying lifestyle in U.S.-born helmer John Shank’s stunningly shot, languidly paced French-lingo debut, “Last Winter.” Assembled with impressive confidence and featuring quietly powerful perfs, the pic is not for those unimpressed by understated storytelling, but the arthouse crowd will find much to praise in this heartfelt ode to a rural way of life fast becoming obsolete. Fests and a limited release on rarefied screens should last through at least a couple of seasons.
Before the credits roll, the widescreen frame is filled with a darkened gray-blue winter landscape; a man approaches out of the wind and obscurity, carrying a large bundle. A young man’s voice says, “I belonged to the land, like my father, and his father … ” establishing all that needs to be immediately known about twentysomething orphan Johann (Vincent Rottiers).
Like his ancestors, he’s the proprietor of a cattle farm. If all goes well, he just scrapes by, but if not, everything comes collapsing down around him.
And everything is going wrong. Unlike most of his neighbors, who are also deeply in debt, Johann is unwilling to buckle under the pressure of larger landowner Helier (Michel Subor) and refuses to modify the practices of many lifetimes to suit a changing world. Johann’s attachment to the land is elemental and largely solitary: He’s pig-headed, quietly passionate and incapable of articulating his emotions.
The first interior scene shows him at a spotlit table at night, pitch darkness all around, making it seem as if nothing lies beyond the confines of the image. It’s a striking contrast to the outdoor scenes, which give a sense of the landscape stretching outside the frame into a comforting infinity. Certainly for Johann the exterior is what matters — the rhythm of farm life, the attachment to nature.
Unlike his peer, Franck (Helier Cisterne), who exchanged the insecurity of agriculture for a desk job, Johann is incapable of imagining a different life. When his barn burns down, he relies on getting insurance money, but the inspector discovers Johann hasn’t kept up with mandatory inspections, and he’s no longer covered.
Side characters, and Johann’s relationship with them, are relatively opaque — most are fairly dispensable, though they serve to show that Johann is not an island. One exception is Pierre (Theo Laborie), a young boy who looks up to Johann and becomes literally the last witness to this disappearing way of life.
Rottiers (“I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive”) movingly shoulders the burden of character and symbol, his mounting distress conveyed by his care-worn, tired face. Most notable is the lensing, richly capturing the wintry setting in the full glory of its limited palette. Penumbral interiors have a painterly quality, the kind that grows in depth and dimensionality when stared at for a short time, notwithstanding largely gray tonalities. Music matches the mood, restrained yet full-bodied. Though “Last Winter” may be under the radar of most filmgoers, Shank proves he’s a name to watch.