I try not to watch too many World War II movies for Movie Monday, but there are just so dingdang many. When I get the chance, therefore, to watch a movie like Ao, the Last Hunter (French title Ao, the Last Neanderthal) I jump at it.
I think … is it weird that it really bothered me that the movie was in French? I mean, it had subtitles and my French is … all right-ish. But to an English-speaker, the sound of French is associated with elegance and sophistication in a way that no amount of cultural relativism will ever get rid of. So even though a) it’s stupid to think of Neanderthals as “primitives” or whatever, and b) it’s not like they spoke English either.
Aaaanyway, Ao (Simon Paul Sutton) is one of a small tribe of Neanderthals living in a remote, snowy mountain range, presumably to keep them safe from the encroaching homo sapiens. He has an infant daughter.
Does he only speak French in voice-over and speak in some kind of grunt-talk when he speaks in character? That’s an odd choice; maybe it’s meant to align with theories that Neanderthals didn’t speak in the way modern humans did? Others believe they had complex speech. It’s one of those ongoing debates, and I’m not enough of a prehistorian to take sides, although I believe the evidence either way is pretty slight.
It’s nice that there’s a one-armed Neanderthal, arguing against the idea that disabled people were just discarded or whatever. I believe that is in line with what we know; most of the “life is hard” crap people will tell you about historical time periods is something they use to justify how they feel in the modern day.
Ao and his buddy Borrh have a pretty good fight with a polar bear, which seems quite realistic other than the bit where they decide the best plan is to just take it on mano a mano. Ao survives getting mauled by the bear, crushed under its body and left half-naked in the freezing cold, so we can tell he is serious business. Borrh is done for, however.
We’re getting a lot of spirituality and stuff: “may your spirit light to the great plain of the dead” and so on, which is all totally made up, of course. Also, Bulgarian women’s choir all over everything. It is the past, after all, and the only music the past can tolerate is Bulgarian women’s choir or Tuvan throat-singing. Oh, or Taiko drumming.
But when Ao gets home, oh shiiiiiiiiiit his clan have been killed; not by the bear, but by a new antagonist — rotten old H. sapiens. Even little baby Nea is dead. But when the AMHes jump him, something in Ao’s spirit refuses to kill another human. Ao plays a flute made from a bone over the grave of his daughter.
Flash back to somewhere in southern Europe, where Ao and his twin brother Oa are fishing. Also, someone made that gag about the first person to eat shellfish into a little mini-scene. We see that Ao found the flute on the body of a Homo sapiens. The Neanderthals act like music is some radical innovation, which I guess is a way of dealing with the fact that artefacts like the Divje Babe Flute are controversial in terms of their dating and function.
Anyway, Ao wanders and there are more flashbacks; we see the Neanderthals dying of a disease and Ao being sent to live with another clan. Back in the present day, he decides that what he needs is to be reunited with Oa. Cue a shitload of walking!
Along the way, Ao encounters various hazards, including a stampeding herd of bison (quote an impressive scene). There are lots of animal encounters here and in the flashbacks. Anyhow, while hunting for some food, Ao is captured by some AMHes, who take him to their village. They have also captured a young H. sapiens couple, presumably from a rival tribe. They sacrifice the man, outraging Ao.
They’ve included a lot of unverifiable detail in the Cro-Magnon costumes, including face-painting, scarification and so on.
Ao carries out a daring escape with the aid of a suspiciously convenient wasps’ nest or beehive or whatever. There’s some quite pretty cave-exploring sequences. I’ll say this for the film; it makes tremendous use of landscape. All the various natural environments look good. In the cave, Ao runs into the escaping woman (Aruna Shields), who is giving birth to a baby. Ao says “Nea” out loud in case you missed it. At this point, the woman gets a voiceover as well, which is kind of an interesting thing — we can hear what each of them is thinking, but they don’t understand each other. Ao runs off with the baby and Aki (that’s her name) comes after him to get her back, while the bad-guy Homo sapiens chase all of them. More walking!
Ao is getting sicker, possibly with the disease that killed his dad in the flashback. When he collapses, Aki takes him back to her now-deserted village and looks after him. Look, over time they come to understand each other and even, dare I say it, love each other. What were you expecting? Anyway, more chases, more fleeing, more meditations on violence. She teaches him to use an atl-atl, which is pretty cool (although he just knows how to use it right away, which I guess is what you’d expect from a guy who went toe-to-toe with a polar bear).
We get some funerary practice — Ao finds dead Neanderthals inside mammoth houses and gets to work reburying them.
This is interesting, but also kind of weird, because he didn’t give a hang about Borrh being left for dead out on the frozen slopes. He just mumbled a prayer and pissed off. Also, Ao tries to rape Aki, or maybe just thinks they can be lovers and gets spurned (“we’re too different,” she says to herself). They meet a tribe of Homo sapiens who have a sort of pet Neanderthal; when the tribe chucks Ao out, that guy is the most vicious one. Clever, if obvious. Eventually, Aki decides she doesn’t like this new tribe after all and runs off to rejoin Ao. There’s quite a cool journey through a burnt forest. They make friends with a horse (well, some kind of equid; I assume it’s a horse?).
Ao and Aki finally get it on in that mud-covered, in-the-rain, no-kissin’-on-the-mouth way that filmmakers use to suggest primal passion. There is a rainbow. Finally, Ao returns home to the coastal settlement of his youth. But you guys remember the title of this movie, right? Oa is dead, and the clan with him. Still, Ao gets to live out his days on the coast with Aki, baby Wama and her soon-to-be-born little sibling.
OK, so … what can we say about this movie? It’s odd. And it’s very … I don’t want to say hippy-dippy, but hippy-dippy … for this day and age. Like, Ao is always banging on about nature and how Aki is like nature (she shares) and talking to animals; like, he straight up persuades a nursing horse to feed the baby, which I am almost 100% certain is not how horses work. So I’m not sure what they’re trying to say here — that Neanderthals were in touch with nature and special and the bad old H. sapiens killed them, or what?
It looks nice; can’t argue with that. Lots of lovely landscapes, from sun-baked rocky coast to snowy mountains and plenty of good caves. The costumes and props look good, even if necessarily they’re a bit speculative. And there are a lot of good little bits to it. But you wouldn’t have believed a movie less than 90 minutes long could drag like this.