A naked woman plays in the surf. The rumble of planes overhead shock her and she runs back to the shore to dress. A man spots her, he approaches and tells her he has been following her and watching her for two weeks. She starts to resist, but there is something about this man, something alluring. Against her better judgment, she allows herself to become sucked into his world.
So begins 1958’s The Last Day of Summer (Ostatni Dzień Lata) from Polish director, Tadeusz Konwicki. A brief, but languid film with the aesthetic of an “art film”: black and white photography, ambient sounds, unnamed characters meeting and falling in love. Know only as She (Irena Laskowska) and He (Jan Machulski), the couple on the beach form what Kurt Vonnegut would call, “A nation of two.” Their world is never crowded by a third, but the constant presence of overhead airplanes disrupts any sense, or possibility, of peace.
He is a student/deserter and She is enjoying the last day of her summer holiday, or as she puts it, “The last day of all summers.” He is 28, or so he says. She is his age, or so she says, but he appears younger and she older. Their meeting immediately reminded me of Paul and Jeanne locking eyes in that vacant Last Tango in Paris apartment. Names are never trade, back story is kept to a minimum, but what is obvious is that both are lost, hurt and hope to find peace in the other. Yet, neither can offer any.
Awarded the Grand Prix for Documentary at the 1958 Venice Film Festival and the main prize for Experimental Film at EXPO, The Last Day of Summer was made by a crew of five, one Ariflex camera and 19,000 feet of black and white film. Not bad, considering what they produced is an artistic masterpiece, a cinematic exploration of depths of despair present in the human soul.
Konwicki could be criticized for making more of an experiment than a story, but those looking for a story will miss the proverbial forest for the trees. The Last Day of Summer is about what can and cannot be communicated between people and the vast gulf that separates the two. To complicate matters, She and He are constantly reminded of a world — a violent and oppressive one — that exists just outside their created one. This might be a dream, or it might be cruel reality.
Whether you choose approach The Last Day of Summer as an experiment, a documentary, or a parable, watching it is like dreaming with your eyes wide open. The sound of the surf washes over the ears, while the breeze in the grass and grit of the sand is tangible. It is short, clocking in just over an hour, but it lingers in the mind. This is partly due to the movie’s ambiguous ending and stunning final shot. Filmed from a high angle, She wanders aimlessly into the surf, letting the waves crash around her and relentlessly push her back. She makes slow progress, but it is progress none-the-less. It is a shot that contains all of the meaning, and all of the emotion, that The Last Day of Summer has to offer.