The latest film from Belgian actor, writer and director Bouli Lanners is an alternative take on the kind of neo-Westerns with which the Coen brothers have made their name. Taking place across arid flatlands in northern France, The First, the Last starts as a conventional tale about two bounty hunters hired to find a wealthy client’s stolen mobile phone, but it turns into a surprisingly tranquil reflection on mortality and the afterlife.
Lanners stars as Gilou, one of the aging bounty hunters who, alongside his partner, Cochise (Albert Dupontel), is sent on the mysterious mission to reclaim their client’s lost phone. The tracker they have been given to help them find it is leading them towards Willy (David Murgia) and Esther (Aurore Broutin), a young, vagrant couple escaping from some unknown threat.
What follows is part chase movie, part existentialist rumination. When Gilou is hospitalised after collapsing on the job, Cochise is left to finish it on his own. Gilou, in his hospital bed, has plenty of time to reflect on his age and the afterlife, especially because a man purporting to be the second coming of Jésus (played by Philippe Rebbot) is infirm in the bed next to him, complete with gunshot stigmata and posed like Mantegna’s Christ.
This is one indication of the film’s biggest departure from convention. Rather than following through with the guns-blazing, vigilante hero narrative we expect, it digresses into a contemplative, religiously-inflected story about the physical and metaphysical nature of being. The Catholic theme is overt, the title itself originating from a Bible passage, ‘So the last will be first, and the first last’ (Matthew 20:16), meaning those who are truest to God will be the first to enter Heaven. Accordingly, the latter half of the film sees Gilou contemplating not just his faith, but his goodness, which builds towards an unexpected finale.
The film’s cast list boasts some impressive names. Max von Sydow lends his formidable gravitas late on as an enigmatic undertaker, while Suzanne Clément, excellent in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014), is sorely under-utilised here, acting as little more than a casual love interest and occasional taxi driver for Cochise. The two leading men are, however, excellently placed as the weary hunters. There are brief flashes of violence, which hint at how dangerous the pair might have been in their prime, but for the most part they’re left counting their aches, long in the tooth and stuck in the wrong game.
Had The First, the Last proceeded as the sober neo-Western it sets itself up to be, it would probably have made for a good, if not particularly original, film. Its landscapes are gloomy, all silvery skies and sun-bleached flatland scrub. It could have simply been a familiar story about small-town crooks, big-time mobsters and the heroes unwittingly caught in the middle. Instead, it strives for a higher meaning. Whether or not you judge it to have succeeded might depend on how much faith you place in its Jésus.
Original title: Les premiers les derniers
Country: France, Belgium
Language: French, English
Director: Bouli Lanners
Starring: Albert Dupontel, Bouli Lanners, Suzanne Clément
Runtime: 98 minutes