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Le Dernier Combat, written by Pierre Jolivet and Luc Besson, directed by Luc Besson, 1983, 90 min.

Le Dernier Combat is the debut film from Luc Besson, and it's an interesting precursor to the low-budget, independent film that has come to characterize debuts in American film in recent years (I'm thinking of Aronovsky's Pi in particular). Le Dernier Combat is in black and white and it has no dialogue, two things that would seem to make it difficult to get made, but its low budget might not have brought much interference down on itself. Besson has certainly had his share of problems since. The Professional and Big Blue were drastically re-cut for North American release (and without his knowledge), which led him to seek full control over The Fifth Element, with wildly varying results. Besson's direction is already very accomplished in Le Dernier Combat, and the gorgeous black and white cinematography helps quite a lot. The film does have a number of flaws, though I'm not including the lack of dialogue.

Our hero is known only as the man, and he is living amid the ramshackle remnants of civilization, the unexplained wreckage of what once was. A gang of nearby thugs is after him, and he needs to steal a battery for his homemade airplane. He manages to escape from the gang and the tyrannical man in the white suit; he crashes near a city, but the state of affairs is bad there too, of course. At first, he manages to create a makeshift home, but he has a terrifying encounter with a man known as the brute. The brute has also been terrorizing a doctor who is holed up in an old hospital; our hero battles the brute one day, falls in a sewer, and then finds himself inside the hospital. He becomes friends with the doctor, and this section is the real heart of the movie. The doctor has a woman locked up in a cell and our hero naturally gets curious. But the two men must face up to the brute's persistence. After this drama resolves itself, our hero returns to deal with the man in the white suit.

The main character is not entirely likeable and his big dilemma is effectively conveyed in the very first scene -- he needs a woman. Too bad the way this was played seemed very sexist (see my review of Dr. Strangelove for related comments). He sometimes uses his brain, like when he builds an airplane from spare parts (or when he somehow patches it up after a crash). But other times he survives by luck or incomprehensible turns of event, like the spooky sequence after he crashes and men in atmosphere suits are spraying some kind of poisonous substance all around his little hiding place. The doctor was an excellent character, and he added a great deal to the movie. His sense of irony is most notable with new cave-paintings that he is creating. The interlude with our hero and his friendship with the doctor was wonderful and well-played. The brute was nasty and violent, as were the gang of thugs in the beginning and end of the movie. This contrast perhaps made the friendship with the doctor more poignant.

This is a post-apocalyptic film after all, and the breakdown of civilization isn't particularly endearing. The man in the white suit (and those who fill his role) uses the threat of chopping off fingers as a method of control. Grim, but unmistakeable. And the breakdown of civilization, as pondered so often by men, is generally bad news for the fate of the women. Our hero is desperate for a woman but the only female companionship is under the lock and key of the doctor and, later, the man in the white suit. Being the central character, he naturally wins everything he wants, but the whole situation still stinks of a weird kind of wish fulfillment; most genre stories work on the same principle, that of the point of view of the one person who lucks out, but the goal here, an imprisoned woman all one's own, is notably offensive. That's the post-apocalypse for you.

Le Dernier Combat doesn't explain why civilization is in ruins, and it doesn't explain the central conceit: that no one can talk. This leads to a touching scene when the man and the doctor are becoming friends. The doctor has clearly been experimenting, and he uses a gas mask and what seems like bottled oxygen to allow himself and his new friend to say "Bonjour!" to each other. This smooth, graceful section in the middle of the movie is the best part of the story; the rest of the movie simply doesn't achieve the same profundity as this plain friendship.

DVD Note: The currently available DVD of Le Dernier Combat has no extra features; thankfully, the film is in widescreen format and uncut, both of which are blessings for Besson whose films have not always been treated so kindly. The DVD is a gorgeous display for the black and white cinematography in particular.


First posted: July 13, 1998; Last modified: March 24, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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