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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La dernière séance d’Altman

by J. R.

Robert Altman’s Last Show: a Film Review

Translated Friday 29 December 2006, by Patrick Bolland

Last will and testament: Robert Altman’s "The Last Show" is a magisterial evocation of the twilight days of an old-fashioned musical show. It concludes the work of a master of the cinema.

The Last Show, directed by Robert Altman (USA), 105 minutes.

Everybody recognizes that The Last Show will be remembered in the annals of history as Robert Altman’s last film. The cinema-goers can’t help be see in it his Altman’s final will and testament, even if the film is so high on energy that it manages to make us forget the nostalgia that underlies it. Yet it is the unbounded energy that Altman applied to all his film projects.

We are in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in other words … nowhere. It is there that over the last 30 years a weekly radio programme - retransmitted to 558 stations across the country - is recorded in front of a live audience in an old-fashioned theatre. If we didn’t see a cell-phone or other rare scenes of contemporary life, we could believe we were being transported back into the 1950s. The microphones are of the old-fashioned kind – ones today you only see in period films. Those behind the microphones a female country duet who sing in unison, a black woman wailing the blues, two singing cowboys – faithful troopers who have always come together for the radio show, run be a presenter who makes sales pitches through the show for products which are really the essential element of both the production and of the programme. We need to add the musicians, the sound-effects man, the private-eye responsible for the security of the troop (straight out of a detective film - he’s called Guy Noir - and a woman who is a complete phantom. They are all there. But this evening’s show is not like all the others, for it is the last time it will be put on.

Robert Altman had the guts to film this in what seems like real time – the film lasting exactly as long as the show, with ten minutes before the curtain is raised, and the moments after it is lowered. The camera is in constant movement, jumping from the scenes on the stage, to the corridors, to the private VIP boxes, the editing pushed to the extreme, but maintains its continuity through the sound-track as each everyone off-stage is waiting to come on-stage. Call it virtuosity if you like, but it’s anything but gratuitous, of course.

In addition, Altman gives us a marvellous group portrait, as he had the secret of doing, tracking each in their fault-lines and their certainties. The casting, which is magnificent, never lets him down: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, so many names, well-known or little-known, of whom none must be given star-billing or unmentioned. A life has reached its end with a final masterpiece.

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