Last Night (1999)


By j.serpico

“There’s real intelligence behind the decision not to participate in the world.” - D. McKeller, The Village Voice, Nov. 16, 1999

So he says… yet this particular film, his first, does not really seem to reflect such an alienated position. It’s December 31, 1999 and the world is about to end in just six short hours. There is no explanation for this sudden demise. The film’s opening shot looks down on Patrick (played by McKellar) as he lies sprawled on the floor gazing ceiling-ward. His and a few others’ last moments on earth proceed to be meticulously detailed in all their various and confused states of both resignation and rebellion. No one, it seems, can decide not to participate.

Patrick is a recently widowed architect who, to his mother’s dismay, wants to spend his last hours alone. Sandra is a recently married woman searching desperately for a way home to her husband, where they plan to commit simultaneous suicide as the clock strikes midnight. Craig is an old high school friend of Patrick’s whose great last gasp is to fulfill every sexual fantasy he has ever had and never before articulated. A nameless funny-haired man meticulously telephones every surname in the phone book, thanking them for using the gas company and assuring them the gas will remain functioning until the end.

Patrick finds Sandra on his doorstep, distraught by her inability to get home to her husband. Though she remains a deterrent to his plans for solitude, he throws his caution to the wind and begins to aid her in her quest. The pair walk the paper-strewn, decimated streets of Toronto looking for an available car for Sandra’s trek. This proves futile, but enables the viewing of random violence, rudeness, and overall carousing by the film’s cadre of festively-dressed extras. This technique could be considered the path of least resistance in the film’s many attempts to convey a building desperation. Bands of marauding punks, women with feather boas, and a screeching, sprinting crone calling out the final countdown do provide an aura of millennial anxiety, but it seems too easy, its references a bit self-conscious.

The duo travel to Craig’s house in search of a car, only to find the dude nearing the end of one of his primary fantasy fulfillments — sex with a former high school French teacher (Genevieve Bujold). Madame too, is engaged in her own fantasy resolutions, checking in on all the former students she can find. Patrick stutteringly attempts to explain, in very bad French, his current occupation to the winsome, sexy woman in one of the film’s funnier moments. His cringing “au revoir” is gently corrected with a shushed “non, adieu.”

Patrick’s and Sandra’s search is intercut with scenes of the GasMan driving home, eating ice cream while listening to the radio, and being shot by a belligerent youth on the street. This juxtaposition seems inexplicable — who is this man with the bouffant hairdo and why does he keep popping up? — until the film’s end. Sandra is continuously thwarted from her plans to reach home and ritual suicide. While at Patrick’s, she repeatedly replays the GasMan’s message of goodwill on the answering machine, and then speaks longingly of strawberry ice cream. The (now) dead man is the husband with whom she planned to spend her final moments. As for Patrick’s final moments — he realizes that rather than brooding into eternity he can spend his last precious minutes wooing Sandra. Time, or the end of it, seems to heal all wounds. Why does Patrick so quickly reverse his original position on the importance of solitude at the world’s end into that of a focused pursuit of Sandra? Or, what’s the use in getting to know a stranger at 11:30 p.m. on the last night of the world?

What begins as a serious attempt to question the materiality of existence and an individual’s lack of control within a larger world spirals into a rather cloying romanticism. The nihilism lurking behind the story’s origins remains peripheral, seemingly represented by the angry, looting crowds. These crowds seem intended as an excitable, descriptive backdrop for the film’s larger concerns. The world is ending, we’re pissed, and there are no rules! Yet these scenes, weighted with a stylization that most of the remaining scenes lack, begin to lapse into a heavy-handed, befuddled conceit which falls apart with the realization that fighting and killing are already an inseparable part of our culture and do not remain reserved for millennial festivities.

Sandra finally accepts both her inability to reach her husband and the necessity of remaining safe from the angry mob within Patrick’s apartment. She then attempts to persuade him to assume the place of her husband in the suicide pact. Patrick eventually accedes to her wishes; yet in the end the guns are traded for kisses. Would not blowing each other’s brains out have been a more dramatic and willful gesture? By stumbling into the other’s lips rather than the barrel of a gun are they not embracing a much more romantic, rational, and contrived acquiescence to the world’s irrational demise?

By spending most of its second half establishing a budding love between the two principals, the film’s direction evolves from a more vague, philosophical approach to one’s (and the world’s) end into a more specific and familiar romantic fantasy. This changing approach appears as a manipulation, directing audience anxiety generated in previous scenes into a relatively banal investment in the couple’s emotional and sexual union.

Willfully succumbing to the ubiquitous New Year’s kiss denies the potentially revolutionary impact within Sandra’s prior decision to end her own life before the world gets the opportunity, thereby controlling her own exit. The climactic moments of the world and the film become just another Hollywood-style big screen-kissing finale.

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