Spoiler Alert

Words by Stephen Scobie

Okay, this is a “spoiler alert” for this whole article. It is concerned, exclusively, with the final shots of some current movies. It thus, inevitably, “gives away the endings.” If you don’t want to know how some films turn out, stop reading now. Knowing Hobo, I am sure you will find a very interesting article one turn of the page away.

Of course, we all have our favourite final shots. Above all others, I cherish the close-up of Greta Garbo at the end of Queen Christina – the most sublime moment in the history of movies.  But I also remember the final shot (indeed, the final five minutes) of pure abstraction in Antonioni’s Eclipse. Or the sullen stare into the camera of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Truffaut’s 400 Blows. Or the uncanny moments of so many Tarkovsky films, especially Stalker and Solaris. Or the dizzying spiral into Julie Christie’s eyeball in Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller.  Or Anna Karina in Godard’s Alphaville, learning how to say “I love you.”  Or –

— or, well, I could go on. But on a recent visit to Paris, October 2018,
I saw several films whose final shots threatened to invade this select list.

What is it about final shots?  They sum up. They bring all the ambiguities of the narrative into a single image.  Often, they hold time for a moment (like the freeze-frame in 400 Blows), then release that time, as you suddenly realise, watching, this is it. It’s over. And relax into the real life of the closing credits.

Let me start with Caphernaüm, a film by Nadine Labaki, prize-winner at Cannes. Set in contemporary Beirut, dealing with the struggles of day-to-day living at a level beneath even politics, it has been criticized for its very skill, blamed for “aestheticising” the misery of the lives it depicts.  (And indeed, I do not feel myself exempt: how do you watch such a film & then go out for a meal in a Parisian restaurant?)

But the film is largely carried by the two remarkable performances of its child actors.  The one-year old boy can scarcely be credited with any conscious intent in his performance, though the patience of the film-makers in waiting for exactly the right moment cannot be overstated; but the twelve-year-old Zain gives a performance which is not only knowing, but knowingly endearing.

At the end of the film, Zain, who is in trouble with the law, is adopted by an international relief organization, and offered a release which is in its way as miraculous as any of the New Testament tales of Capernaum  (which remain, apart from the title, strictly unreferenced).  Zain is lined up for an identity photograph.

“Smile,” says an off-screen voice. “It’s not for your funeral, it’s for your passport. Smile.”

And Zain, who has never in the entire film had any expression except doubt, fear, hostility, breaks into an absolutely lovely, enchanting smile.  Hold for a moment.  End of movie.

Am I wrong in seeing here a conscious, deliberate response to 400 Blows?  Twelve-year-old protagonist, in trouble with the law, at the edge of a possible freedom?  But Léaud counters this possibility with a scowl. There is nothing there to believe in. All the battles remain to be fought.

Zain is, for the moment, beatific. If you want to push the implications of the title, then present-day Beirut has turned into Biblical Capernaum, where Jesus still performs miracles.  Ah, but that smile.  That smile can persuade you that anything may come true. That smile can cancel out Truffaut’s ending and give you Labaki’s instead.

Problems with the ending are in a way less obvious with Damien Chazelle’s First Man, After all, we all know the end to this story. Neil Armstrong got to the moon, and then he got back. None of the flashes and bangs which rather tediously occupy much of this movie, nor the curiously understated landing itself, come anywhere close to the interest of the depiction of the astronaut’s relationship with his wife (the great Claire Foy).

Their connection, seen throughout as both supportive and skeptical, is summed up in the image of the couple divided by a quarantine barrier, in which each can see the other, but cannot touch. Their divided reach towards each other, the almost invisible barrier between them, provides an ideal metaphor for their emotional union and separation.  Their emotions are held in quarantine: close, perceptible, but not (literally) in touch.

But there is more to this metaphor, perfect as it is. For the most part, the film avoids leaning too heavily on its title phrase, First Man, except in its literal sense, “first man on the moon.”  But the final shot certainly evokes another sense, for its visual composition, one body leaning towards the other, almost but not quite touching, can only call to mind Michelangelo’s image from the Sistine Chapel. God Himself leaning towards Adam – first man. But in neither image, mural or movie, do the fingers actually touch. Adam, first man, reaches towards the place of God, but is cut off by the protocol of quarantine. Woman may be the recipient of the divine touch, but is also barred from returning it. 

In each case, the moment in which the viewer realizes that this is the final shot is a moment of relief, of bringing something to a clear conclusion. Even if that conclusion is itself ambiguous. (Nothing guarantees that the couple in First Man will continue to build on the ambiguous touch they achieve in quarantine.) Such ambiguous relief is perhaps most clearly expressed in the ending of Cold War.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s film relates the story of two musicians – he, somewhat older, a pianist; she a singer, as they pursue both personal and professional relationships across the divided Europe of the 1950s.  The story is told largely in terms of musical style or fashion: from very raw Polish folk music (the opening shot is an abrasive bagpipe); to sanitized, orchestrated, “polite” and politically approved versions of folk tunes; to the seductive and subversive forms of light and rather smooth jazz found in Paris; to the first raucous stirrings of rock and roll; back to Poland again.  It is also filmed, in a stark black-and-white and almost square aspect, which strikingly evoke the Cold War decades in which the story is set.

In the final scene, the couple return to Poland.  They ride on a bus, and get off at a crossroad, marked by one large tree; otherwise, no habitation in sight.  What are they doing here? Do they expect someone to come and pick them up?  Then she says, “Let’s go to the other side of the road.  The view is better there.” (It isn’t.  The view is exactly the same.  Fields.  One large tree.)  They get up; they walk across the road, out of the frame.  End of movie.

Well, not quite.   But first, consider the possible political reading of this ending. Poland/Paris.  Late 50s, early 60s. Cold War.  Is the view really the same from both sides?  Is this a rather cynical equation of the two sides – the view is much the same, whichever side you’re on? Or is it stating that, somehow, some sense of Poland – cultural, national – survives against some “other” side of the road?

The ambiguities of the final image are then, not resolved, but given a new dimension, by the final title, which now shows up in the empty space of the crossroad: “to my parents.” Now the historical story is grounded in a personal one. Does the son’s success as a film-maker in the west – Cold War is another prize-winner at Cannes – justify his parents’ renewed commitment to Polish culture, or does it transcend it?

The image hangs there. In terms of the other films I saw on this recent brief visit to Paris: there is Caphernaüm’s joyous attempt to counter the closing shot of Truffaut; there is First Man’s ambiguous evocation of the Sistine Chapel. But for Cold War, I think the echo which means most to me would be Antonioni, Eclipse.  

But then, you will all, won’t you, have your own special moments, when the film declares itself over, and you will be either or not at all satisfied?