Pascale Pouzadoux changes register completely for her fourth directorial feature with La Dernière Leçon which tackles head on the thorny and highly contentious issue of assisted death. Her previous films include crowd-pleasing comedies such as Toutes les Filles sont Folles with Jean Dujardin and De L’Autre Côté du Lit with Dany Boon and Sophie Marceau as a couple whose marriage has reached crisis point. But there is nothing comic or vaguely amusing in the plight of Madeleine (Marthe Villalonga) who announces to her family on her 92nd birthday that she has decided to end her own life. And the film is as drab, depressing and uncomfortable to watch as the subjet matter suggests.
Pouzadoux centres the story on the relationship between Madeleine and her daughter Diane (Sandrine Bonnaire) who gradually comes to accept her mother’s decision and even helps her go through with her plan. It’s based on a book by Noëlle Châtelet (the sister of former French prime minister Lionel Jospin) which describes her own mother’s decision to commit suicide when she was in her 90’s. Pouzadoux tries to weigh both sides of the argument, yet the balance is firmly in favour of Madeleine and Diane even though the film’s most plausible character is the son Pierre (Antoine Dulery). He sees his mother’s act as wholly selfish and misguided. She is not terminally ill or unable to live on her own. She has simply decided a fulfilling life has come to the end and she is wilfully ignoring the pain and hurt the decision has on her own family.
After a good life as wife, mother and mid-wife, Madeleine tells her family she intends to take her own life in five weeks time. Her announcement is met with horror by her two children and adolescent grandson Max (Grégoire Montana) who believe she is simply going through a period of depression. But Madeleine is clear-headed and determined to go ahead with her plan leaving nothing to chance. She’s packed and labelled her possessions, said goodbye to her friends and now wants to spend the remaining weeks with her family. While Diane sets aside her own misgivings, Pierre refuses to accept Madeleine’s decision underlining how unnatural it feels for a parent to want to die while their children are still very much alive.
Pouzadoux has not helped her case by introducing the odd note of whimsy. One scene in particular has Madeleine helping a woman give birth on a bench in a hospital parking lot. Add in the caricatural African mother-earth, home-help who is endlessly cheerful and comforts Madeleine by singing African lullabies and La Dernière Leçon
quickly extends beyond the bounds of credibility. Villalonga who made her name in comedy films keeps well-hidden the lightness of touch that has made her a favorurite with French audiences. Bonnaire, whose last film Salaud, On t’aime
directed by Claude Lelouche attracted a disappointing 350,000 admissions, doesn’t go far enough into her character to create any sympathy. And the secondary roles including Diane’s restaurateur husband and Pierre’s meddling wife are completely superflous. As debate continues over the moral implications of assisted death, Pouzadoux’s film is unlikely to change the opinion of those firmly in the ‘no’ camp.