August 8, 2023
WRITTEN BY: JACOB
In the vast history of the cinematic art form, much has been written regarding the idea of firsts and lasts. Yet, for all the authored ruminations on the audiovisual firsts and lasts present in movie history, there remains a distinct lack of material exploring the idea of the final glance shared between two characters, an idea I like to call “Last Looks.”
For obvious reasons, this piece comes bearing a hefty SPOILER WARNING.
Our start takes place in 1942, with the release of what I believe to be the quintessential old Hollywood classic, Casablanca. There are more than a few iconic moments both leading up to and immediately following this film’s Last Look, from Humphrey Bogart’s delivery of “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to his final line of the film, when he says to Claude Rains’ Louis Renault, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” But it’s what happens between those two lines that draws our focus with respect to this idea of mine. Just after the first of these exchanges, but just before the latter, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick (Bogart) share one final look. If one glances deeper, this look is revealed not to be one of mere love or loss, but of triumph – costly, tragic, and all too bittersweet. As Rick and Ilsa look into each other’s eyes, one can see the idea of victory come across each of their faces. A wisdom that the end of the war and a defeat of the forces that keep them apart is in sight, even as their view of it remains years away. Triumph over evil – in each meaning that takes – is on the distant horizon.
THE GODFATHER (1972)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we come to perhaps the most famous film in this piece. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, for all the subsequent praise and criticism thrown its way since its release in 1972, remains one of the great achievements in movie history, both from an adaptational perspective and as one looks upon its oceans of influence. Everyone remembers the more famous lines and sequences from the film, but few talk about that last shot, where Kay (Diane Keaton) looks, not to Michael (Al Pacino) as he ascends to the status of Don, but to Al Neri (Richard Bright) as he closes the door. It is, in every respect, a glance of defeat, with Neri’s return glance an acknowledgement that Kay will never truly win Michael out of this life that has now been cemented into his legacy. Despite any aversion to it that Michael has attempted, and despite any allure that Kay may represent away from this love affair with organized crime… there is simply no victory that can pull Michael from his ultimate fate, and there is no safeguard against destiny.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
As I sat in a movie theater some months ago watching the 20th Anniversary re-release of Peter Jackson’s epic conclusion to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was struck by something in the film that I had not noticed before – or, if I had noticed it, had never been quite so attentive to – and that moment is what became the inspiration behind this piece: the Last Look between story protagonist Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his three Hobbit friends on the shores of the river that would carry Frodo to The Grey Havens, thus ending his time in Middle Earth forever. There is no dialogue accompanying this gaze, no final declaration or quippy joke; there is only the beauty of the score and an almost imperceptible zoom on Frodo’s face as his eyes communicate to the others that he loves them, and always will. This is especially punctuated as we cut from Frodo’s gaze to Sam’s (Sean Astin) and understand that, though the look is given to all three of the Hobbits standing on the cobblestone, it is especially meant for him. Within Frodo’s gaze, we see a love not only given to the other Hobbits, but directed towards Sam specifically as a final farewell and reassurance that – in Sam’s heart – he will never truly leave.
SING STREET (2016)
As we turn to more obscure material through the mid-2010s, and as the 2010s themselves become laden with blockbuster entertainment slightly less concerned with unabashed sincerity, we come upon subtler but all-too-potent examples of the Last Look that began to permeate the indie filmmaking scene. One such instance is in John Carney’s severely underrated Sing Street. Throughout the film, we come to understand that Jack Reynor’s character, Brendan, may never truly attain the life he so badly needs to rise above his own station, but that he would do anything to help his brother Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) achieve a better life. In one of the film’s sweetest moments, Conor decides that he and newfound love Raphina (Lucy Boynton) are to leave their island on a boat bound for England so that they can achieve their musical dreams, a move that Brendan is made aware of just prior to its occurrence. One could focus on the final glance between Conor and Raphina, but in this particular case, I find the final look that Brendan gives Conor most compelling, not simply because of what it represents, but because crucially, this is the one example in this piece where the look is not mutually given. As Brendan looks out to the water, and as Conor and Raphina sail on, we are able to see in Brendan’s eyes a kind of hope, not only for Conor’s future, but for any life outside of the island they’ve occupied. As low as Brendan has been for most of the film, the central power of hope is in how it is gifted to other people, and it is evident in Brendan’s gaze towards the distant vessel that whatever hope he has, he is sending towards his brother.
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019)
Celine Sciamma’s work is destined to be remembered as some of the finest filmmaking in the entirety of French cinema, but I find it unlikely that any of her films will be so revered as her masterful 2019 hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film’s delicate ballet of heartache – mirroring the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice – sets the stage in its first 90 minutes for a final look between the two main characters that can only be understood as tragedy. As Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is set to leave Heloise (Adèle Haenel) behind to a marriage she does not want with a man she does not know, she begins to exit the premises in which she had been commissioned to paint a portrait of Heloise. However, unlike the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, the viewer understands something infinitely more heart-wrenching: whereas in the ancient tale, Eurydice (Heloise, in this case) is given the option to escape; in this version, there is nothing that can be done, which renders Marianne’s final turn – a look back at her one love in ghostly white – a profound and inescapable tragedy. Therefore, we understand that it is not necessarily the character’s Last Look towards Heloise that informs this idea, but the viewer’s. It is our gaze that sees Heloise and understands that just as Marianne is helpless to rescue her, we are helpless to do anything but watch.
PAST LIVES (2023)
As luck would have it, Past Lives was not originally part of this piece. In fact, when this idea was conceived, the film had not yet debuted in theaters. How fitting, then, that it would show up just as the text is set to end, giving us one last reference point… and perhaps the most emotionally poignant one of all. As Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is set to go back to Korea, Nora (Greta Lee) walks him to his Uber, where the two share one Last Look. It lasts for nearly a full minute before the glance is broken, but within that minute, everything is wordlessly communicated, including that this look - this moment - is it for them. They are likely to never meet again, and this chapter has come to an end. This is the wordless catharsis both Nora, and we the audience, have been longing for over the course of the film, and even if the work is barely seven months old, it remains one of the finest examples I can give of the idea behind Last Looks.
Photo Credits: Photo 1 - Warner Bros; Photo 2 - Paramount Pictures; Photo 3 - New Line Cinema; Photo 4 - Lantern Entertainment; Photo 5 - Pyramide Films; Photo 6 - A24