Berlinale 2023 review: This Is the End (Vincent Dieutre)

“Any film that quotes a French thinker this much is bound to turn most of its audience off, but there is a strange hypnotic spell that This Is the End casts on you as you watch it.”

Los Angeles, the City of Angels. But their wings look muddy, and the angels might actually be the harbingers of death. Is the end near? Watching Vincent Dieutre’s elegiac essay This Is the End, the impression is inescapable. Shot during the pandemic, facemasks galore, the film paints a picture of a city that has lost its soul and is now shuffling towards the abyss like a zombie on tranquilizers. There are snakes in the pools of Helldorado, and on the stage of a poetry club the doomsday prophets regurgitate Bukowski and Jim Morrison (that’s your title right there).

The filmic essay is a niche genre, and when it is done by an aging French director looking at the New World through old European eyes it becomes even more alienating. But there is a rhythm to the dread, dictated by the humming engine of the iron monster that runs this city: the car. Much of the film is shot from an old Mustang, some front-facing, a lot of it sideways. As his camera catches the ghettos, the gay district, the tent cities, the director muses over his images about literature, cinema, decline. His musings read like poetry, and to be fair, they are more poetic than the performers at The End Poetry Lounge in East Hollywood. A gaggle of well-known artists that includes Elina Löwensohn, Jean-Marc Barr, Darrell Davis, and Kate Moran intersperse the film with beat poetry, not their own, that can be provocative, at times too much so; one scene contains several slurs that would take any audience aback.

There is a structure to the madness though. A European filmmaker (Dieutre himself) defies the pandemic when Facebook brings him into contact with an old lover from 40 years earlier. He flies to LA to meet up with Dean (Dino Koutsolioutsos), a retired psychoanalyst. The city is not what he expected, not the city he knows from the movies. A 20-year string of disasters that started with September 11th and ended with Trump and the pandemic have gutted the city. Gone is the glitz, exchanged for a lethargic sense of despair. Everything is closed, in temporary or permanent lockdown. As the two men rekindle their love, they drive around the city, aimless, endless. The only bright spot not locked in drowsy repetitiveness is a poetry club.

Speaking of repetitiveness: a series of love scenes between the former flames play as interludes, but Dieutre uses gifs that repeat the same motion over and over, recreating the endless loop of life in LA. Or at least that is how he sees it, though in a moment of frank voice-over he admits that Europe isn’t much better. The use of gifs is a clever visual metaphor, but that could be expected of a man who says in the press kit, “I think that today’s cinema is much more concerned with subjects than with filmic forms” (sadly, he isn’t wrong). Even the film itself gets repetitive over time, though that is likely the point, as Dieutre waffles on and Eva Truffaut quotes Bruce Bégout. Any film that quotes a French thinker this much is bound to turn most of its audience off, but there is a strange hypnotic spell that This Is the End casts on you as you watch it, and as a portrait of LA, however bleak, it is a fascinating work of art.