The Last Ashes

The Last Ashes (Läif a Séil) (2023)

Loïc Tanson’s The Last Ashes (Läif a Séil) opens in 1838, one year before Luxembourg would, in exchange for partition and diminution, gain her independence. Still under Dutch occupation, Luxembourg is ravaged by famine, war, disease and depopulation – although one clan, living in the North of the country and led by Graff (Jules Werner), offers food, sanctuary and safety to those who are willing to submit to its rule. Living there with her parents (Konstanin Rommelfangen, Tommy Schlesser), little Hélène (Giusi Carenza) has not only grown up with the community’s strange customs and rituals, but actively accepts them, constantly wearing the wooden mask imposed on prepubescent girls, and herself informing on a family of four outsiders who have come desperately looking for food, even though her actions will ruin all their lives. If the culture in this small town is toxic, Hélène has drunk the kool-aid, and is herself part of the problem. Everyone is. It takes a village…

Yet in this opening sequence of Loïc Tanson’s The Last Ashes, shot in both monochrome and Academy ratio to emphasise the colourless, claustrophobic nature of life in the village, Hélène is, for all her inured acquiescence to the status quo, also showing signs not just of ’ripening’, but of rebellion. For she questions why it it is not also her place to go hunting, or to work in the mill, alongside Jon (Jamie Baillie) who is her own age and the other, older sons of Graff. “Everyone here has his duty,” Graff will insist, “so that all of us can lead a decent life.” When Hélène realises that her duty, once she has come of age, is to bear children, ideally male heirs, to Graff and his sons, she decides, after losing her virginity to rape, that she wants out of this place. Her flight will have horrific consequences, as Jon is hamstrung for his complicity in Hélène’s escape, Hélène’s parents are murdered in cold blood, and Hélène herself is left very much for dead, in a state of (literal) suspense.

15 years later, the boundaries of Luxembourg may have shrunk but its horizons have expanded, as is reflected in a shift to full-colour, widescreen presentation. Now war has ended, and everything is opening up, with rail tracks – that great signifier of mobility and modernity – being laid across the newly forming nation, bringing its divided peoples closer together. Yet there remain some holdouts, and Graff’s castle town still keeps its gates closed to strangers and meets any perceived incursions into its territories or mores with menace if not outright violence. Graff has no intention of ceding his fiefdom to anyone besides his sons, even if the male line appears mysteriously to have come to an end, with baby boys either stillborn or dying after birth. One way or another, whether from growing external threats or an internal ‘curse’, Graff’s family – and the town that it rules – is losing its fire and, in the absence of heirs to rekindle the flame, is down to its last ashes.

As tensions between Graff’s last outpost of regression and the extramural forces of progress are building to an inevitable confrontation, Hélène (Sophie Mousel) comes riding in on a horse. Having spent years with the indigenous tribes of the New Continent, she is now heavily tattooed, fiercely independent and back – as if from the dead – to wreak her vengeance upon the community that wronged her so many years ago. If she is like the revenant cowboy from Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973), then this is a kind of oater, set not so much in the wild west as in the wild frontiers of Western Europe, as Luxembourg, in parallel to the distant Americas, is forging new identity and civilisation out of brutality and conflict.

Now calling herself Oona and half-insinuating half-entrapping herself in Graff’s closed society, Hélène is very much on the side of the natives, preferring their equalitiess to the male repression of the castle community, where women are treated like breeding cattle and Graff and his sons are licensed to rape. Known to everyone as ‘Father’, Graff builds his power base upon an extended bloodline (spread even further through droit du seigneur) and lords it over everyone with bullying humiliation, xenophobic superstition and ruthless aggression. Hélène’s showdown with Graff is a battle of the sexes that casts the heroine as free-spirited feminist trying to bring down the patriarchy from within – with solidarity from the other women there and perhaps even from the limping, adult ally Jon (Timo Wagner) who has experienced first-hand the crippling, go-nowhere nature of Graff’s legacy.

Hélène’s vengeance is also an emancipation, as a new, more liberated country emerges Phoenix-like from the ashes of the its own backward history. Accordingly Tanson’s feature debut, which he co-wrote with Frederic Zeimet, is a national epic dressed in the trappings of a western. It is also a ghost story of sorts: for Hélène is back from the dead and the Graffs too are moribund spectres of a redundant, unsustainable past whose end has already been written. Outside the castle bounds, the land of the living is better – but before the future life that it promises can be realised, there must be a reckoning with pernicious, patriarchal traditions, even from beyond the grave.

strap: Loïc Tanson’s Western(-European) feature debut presents Luxembourg’s liberation and independence as haunted rape revenge

© Anton Bitel