Written by Nick Atkin

Shot in the remote southern French countryside of Aveyron, Belgian/French/Swiss co-production Last Winter details the hardships of cattle-rearer Johann (Vincent Rottiers).

American-born, Brussels-based director John Shank emphasises the physical work of farm-tending, opening on young, muscular Johann herding the animals handed down by his father in the austere hillside.

But also highlighted is the isolation of such an existence. Johann talks to his cattle and spends more time with them than any human being. When he is not with the animals, he is opening letters or cooking on his own.

Johann’s romance with a local girl (Anais Demoustier) is fleeting and almost passionless, the two symbolically shot either side of a chain-link fence when he visits her at her chicken coop, clutching each other’s fingers through the gaps. Shank’s bedroom scenes do not have them making love but simply lying awake in the dark instead.

Times are tough for Johann’s hillside agricultural co-op, with an offer made by an Italian for their calves. Johann, the youngest member yet and┬átheir de facto leader, refuses the deal knowing too well that the cattle he lovingly raises will be sent to battery farms and mistreated.

A village festival brings everyone together to join in the blessing of the herds before they get down to eating and drinking. The people dance merrily in front of a raging fire as the wind howls fiercely, symbolic and foreboding of the trouble that lies ahead for Johann.

The prayers are not answered as Johann’s barn catches fire soon after, and he is framed as a lifeless black silhouette against the raging red flames, his livelihood robbed. Johann sombrely scans the wreckage knowing an unforgiving winter approaches.

Johann’s life starts spiralling out of his control as he must choose between preserving personal relationships and himself. His mentally-ill sister (Florence Loiret Caille), prone to frequent breakdowns, requires constant care, and Johann also plays surrogate father to another villager’s young son who idolises him.

But like any father, Johann is desperate to prevent his ‘child’ realising he is not perfect, which becomes apparent when the debt collectors come knocking and he ashamedly hides behind his hay barrels.

Shank’s film sums up the human despair of winter, a heightened example of personal struggle that captures and transmits the misery of the bitterly cold weather. It is a tale of how one small incident can snowball, no pun intended, and change a man’s life.

A haunting soundtrack beautifully compliments the poetic visuals, spoken words few and far between as cinematographer Hichame Alaouie’s stunning widescreen landscapes steal the focus to create a pensive and reflective mood in what proves to be a memorable debut feature for Shank.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.