Sunday 23 June 2024

The Last Romantic Lover (1978)

The Last Romantic Lover was Just Jaeckin’s fourth feature film. His third film, the superb Madame Claude (1977), had represented a slight change in direction. The Last Romantic Lover (based on an original story by Jaeckin) marks a much more radical departure from his earlier work.

Jaeckin was steadily growing in confidence and rapidly becoming one of the interesting film-makers in France. It didn’t do him any good. He was never going to be forgiven by critics for Emmanuelle. French critics were determined not to give him an even break and critics in other countries mostly followed suit. No matter how good his movies were critics were going to despise them. In general he is still unfairly dismissed as a maker of trash movies while critics gush over much less talented and much less interesting directors. The Last Romantic Lover is a wonderful movie that still gets very little attention.

The film begins with a visually stunning sequence of a circus funeral, but the dearly departed is not a human member of the company but the circus’s lion. It’s the first of many off-kilter subtly surreal moments.

The circus faces ruin but the circus’s owner Max (Fernando Rey) has a plan. He will persuade the circus’s lion tamer Pierre Mowgli (Gérard Ismaël) to enter The Last Romantic Lover competition. Pierre will win and the first prize is $30,000 which will pay for a new lion and clear the circus’s debts. There are thousands of entrants in this competition but the circus’s resident clairvoyant has assured Max that Pierre will at least make it to the final twelve.

The competition is the brainchild of magazine editor-publisher Elisabeth (Dayle Haddon). Most reviewers seem to assume it’s a women’s magazine but at one point it’s described as a “tit mag” so it seems more likely it’s a men’s magazine.

Elisabeth believes that women are lacking romance in their lives. The competition will find the country’s greatest romantic lover. Elisabeth is partly right. There is a lack of romance in the modern world. As we will discover Elisabeth feels that romance is lacking in her own life. Elisabeth is right about the importance of romance, but she does not really understand the true meaning of the word. She lives in the shallow fashion/media world. Romance means good-looking sexually desirable men. As the story unfolds she will learn what romance is all about.

The competition occupies the first half of the movie. It’s a lavish stylistic tour-de-force as the men are put through their paces.

Pierre does not want to win, because he knows this is not what romance is all about.

I think it’s a huge mistake to read this as a feminist movie. It’s certainly not feminist in the narrow ideological sense. It’s not anti-feminist either. It has other fish to fry. This is a movie about romance - not just the romantic love between a man and a woman but romance in a much broader sense, romance as an attitude towards life.

There are definitely two entirely separate worlds here. Elisabeth’s world is all about money, fame, success and achievement. She has no time for a proper personal life. At one point when she and her boyfriend make love they have to get it over and done with in 13 minutes so she can get to an important meeting. Sex is like everything else - it has to be done briskly and efficiently and on schedule. Elisabeth can’t figure out why she isn’t happier.

Pierre’s world is the world of the circus. No-one cares about money or fame. The circus people are happy because they are doing what they love. Max runs a circus because it’s in his blood. If he lost the circus he’d die. Pierre can’t imagine wanting to be anything other than a lion tamer.

This might sound strange but at times this movie reminded me just a little of Jean Rollin’s subtle surrealism. There’s a sense that the world of the circus is a world of magic, detached from the everyday world, a world in which things can happen that cannot happen in the real world. It’s a world of romance in the truest and widest sense of the word. All the scenes in the circus have a slight other-worldly feel. Maybe this world is less real than Elisabeth’s world. Maybe it’s more real. There’s a slight fairy tale vibe (which you also get in Rollin’s movies).

This is also a classic romantic comedy which obeys the conventions of that genre. In fact I would describe it as a screwball comedy. There’s more than a hint of Howard Hawks in this film. Jaeckin loved cinema’s past and I’m sure that this is all very deliberate. Elisabeth will have to make an important choice. Her happiness depends on making the right choice. It’s not just a matter of choosing the right man but of choosing the right world.

And then there’s the ending. You’ll have to make up your own mind exactly what it means but I think it’s perfectly in tune with the feel of the movie.

Gérard Ismaël and Dayle Haddon have terrific chemistry. They’re both delightful. Elisabeth is an interesting character. Early on she’s hard-driving and ambitious but she is never a bitch. There’s a certain underlying kindness in her.

There’s almost no nudity and the sex scenes are very restrained (and very romantic and playful).

As much as I adore Gwendoline (and I do absolutely adore it) I think The Last Romantic Lover may now be my favourite Just Jaeckin movie. It really is strange, magical, entrancing and insanely romantic. Jaeckin was one of the best and most innovative French directors of his era and he was certainly the most visually brilliant and stylish. It’s interesting than even his stylishness was held against him, leading to accusations that style was all he had to offer and that his movies lacked substance. This is quite inaccurate and it also misses the point (and it’s a point that a lot of critics miss) that style is crucial. Style is substance.

The Last Romantic Lover is very highly recommended.

The Cult Epics release (on DVD an Blu-Ray) offers an excellent transfer and quite a few extras.

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