A man trudges forward, slowly making his way through a snow storm. The landscape hangs in the distance, bleak with jagged white-capped hills rising in sharp lines across the horizon. They harshly shatter winter sky’s greyness. The man shoulders an immense, dark bag across his back, lugging it as he inches ahead. The land is what’s carried this man, Johann (Vincent Rottiers). It’s what’s provided him with home, hearth, and purpose.
Director John Shank’s “Last Winter” (“L’Hiver Dernier”) transports us to a desolate French country landscape. With an almost wordless opening, we meet Johann, who spends his days and nights mostly in solitude, living and breathing his farm. He’s a cattle man, and he leads a farmers’ co-op. But these farmers, older and more experienced than Johann, are enduring a difficult season, one where the end is nowhere in sight. Refusing to bow to large landowners and corporations, Johann tries to push forward, grounding his future to his past.
What would you tackle to keep a grasp on your birthright? How hard would you fight to keep the last bit of familial past alive? And when does the present–your barn, your sister, and your bank account–slowly crumble away, folding in on itself and leaving behind bits and pieces of history that are more memory than tangible remembrance?
Johann struggles with these questions, trying to sift through everyone’s own truths to decipher his own path forward, out of the cold. While he hides from the realities of an every-changing economy, one that leans away from the solitary farmers, he tries to stay true to his beliefs.
Shank, an American who has made his home in Belgium, offers a beautifully painted portrait of a personal, poignant struggle, one filled with consequence, personal value, and self-ingrained ideals. With spare dialogue, Last Winter’s immense impact comes from the minimal: lush shots of doorways (really, is there a French doorway that doesn’t look beautiful, no matter the age or wear and tear?), a stew eaten right out of the pot on the stove, a young child helping Johann to dispense hay, or a short shot of Johann in the arms of his lover.
The accumulation of the small things makes us who we are and keeps us grounded. And while quiet in purpose, this poetic film offers sweeping idea’s of what an honest heart should be.
“Last Winter” is in French with English subtitles.