Romantic ruins, Shetland ponies, luscious lawns, and rose gardens—for the English, Ireland had everything. But by 1920, the natives were restless, and the Anglo-Irish aristocrats who ruled the land from their grand estates were beginning to sense that the end had come. The Last September, an adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s novel and theater director Deborah Warner’s screen debut, is set at the end of that summer on one such property, where Sir Richard (Michael Gambon) and Lady Myra (Maggie Smith) live with assorted relatives.
“How I’d like to be here when this house burns,” says Myra’s nephew Laurence, a disaffected Oxford intellectual. “We’ll all be so careful not to notice.” More obviously troubling to this clan than the growing Irish rebellion is the presence of a young British captain (David Tennant) who’s forever mooning over Richard’s niece Lois (Keeley Hawkes). House guests (Jane Birkin and Lambert Wilson as a pathetic married couple and Fiona Shaw as a worldly single woman) tiptoe around both subjects. Meanwhile, British soldiers are summarily executed, their naked bodies tossed from riverbanks, and Lois’s childhood playmate becomes a hunted insurgent.
Warner captures Bowen’s luminous prose in deft strokes of light and color. John Banville’s sharp screenplay renders the divided loyalties of a people whose roots are in Ireland, though their immense privileges are owed to the crown. (He strikes a false note with the one bit of action he introduces into the novel’s heady atmosphere.) Among the gifted cast, old-timers Smith and Gambon stand out, Shaw is brilliantly arch (though less effective when she tries to be moving), and Hawkes appears convincingly fresh and unformed. The film’s pathos lies not with people who have justice on their side, but with those who don’t know where they belong, or who find themselves pawns in a broader game of history.
After you’ve tried necrophilia on the first date, what do you do for an encore? That’s the dilemma facing the characters in Don’t Let Me Die on a Sunday, director Didier le Pêcheur’s morose Foucauldian drama. Ben (Jean-Marc Barr) kills time on his job at the morgue by talking to coworkers about sex and watching porn. Early one Sunday morning, a new body rolls in, a girl who overdosed at last night’s rave. The corpse, formerly known as Teresa and played by Elodie Bouchez (from The Dreamlife of Angels), proves irresistible. But when his impulsive act brings her back to life, Ben doesn’t know how to handle her. So, because he has trouble showing affection, they traipse around Paris to various sadomasochistic clubs and orgies. They also abduct a friend with AIDS from the hospital and take him to a remote island where he can die with dignity. The film is meant as a serious meditation on sex, death, and fin de siècle nihilism. But it manages to be both ponderous and silly.