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When boiled down to a synopsis, Karim Dridi's Le Dernier Vol sounds like the kind of film that could go one of several ways: a grand romantic adventure a la English Patient, a story of westerners drawn into obsession and self-destruction in an exotic land they don't belong a la The Sheltering Sky or a critique of 20th century French colonialism a la Fort Saganne with elements of Antonie de Saint-Exupéry's semi-autobiographical writing, but it doesn't really do any of them with much enthusiasm, passion or conviction. Instead, it just drifts aimlessly through nicely photographed Saharan dunescapes as Marion Cotillard's pilot searches for her missing lover and forces her way into a punitive expedition led by the ambitious by the book Guillaume Marquet who mistakenly thinks he's oozing refined charm. Luckily Guillaume Canet is there as well as one of those experienced and vaguely spiritual-yet-cynical soldiers who understands the desert and the Taureg why, he even sleeps with one of them he treats as an equal to emphasise how unlike his unthinking fellow officers he is and whose advice is therefore routinely ignored by his mistrusting and inexperienced superiors who have been de rigueur in desert epics since Lawrence of Arabia. No prizes for guessing what will happen or that it won't end well for anyone.
The story is vaguely based on a true incident (albeit with nationalities and details changed and anything worthy of note removed), but the life of the real-life missing pilot, Bill Lancaster, is so much more colourful and exciting than anything that happens in the film you're just left feeling they pointed the camera at the wrong people. A big part of the problem is that the characters just aren't interesting and the actors seem to be unable to bring them to life or carry the audience's sympathy on a largely uneventful journey that feels a lot longer than the film's 94 minutes, none more so that Cotillard. Unfortunately her passion and frustration simply translates on screen as the kind of aloof surliness that some French actresses in particular mistake for strength of character as she goes about losing friends and failing to influence people: you almost feel sorry for Marquet, and that's clearly not the idea at all. She doesn't even display any chemistry with Canet (her partner offscreen as well as on), who at times give the impression that it's one of those family outings he didn't really want to go on and is making a show of stoically putting up with so that everyone knows it. You could almost imagine him wearing a T-shirt saying 'My girlfriend went to the Sahara and all I got was this lousy part in a movie.' The one interesting thing the film does is show that his 'two-bit humanism' is just as disastrously misjudged as Marquet's euphoric embrace of the white man's burden, but the film never bothers to explore the consequences, resolving his conflict with Marquet in the most infantile way possible and simply treating it as a means of getting the two leads alone so the last third can turn into a love story.
It's the kind of film you might be tempted to excuse as a well-intentioned misfire if only you could work out what the film's intentions actually were, but it's got precious little story to tell, few incidents to liven up the trip, no atmosphere or sensuality and has no discernible point to make or even any real point of view. It's something Cotillard, who was nominated for the French equivalent of a Razzie and described the film as the worst experience of her career, was all too aware of: "I fought for a project and I fought for the director because he was the one that brought the project and I fell in love with it, and then I spent two months in the middle of the desert wanting to kill him and wanting to beat myself because I fought for him and he was so bad. He had no idea of what we were doing, he had no idea of what he wanted to do." It's one of those films that's not terrible and not good but just sits there on the screen taking its time doing nothing in particular. One flight that just never takes off.
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