The Reelist: Before the Credits Roll
Anyone who’s seen Alain Resnais’ just-released Wild Grass, the director’s greatest film since his 1968 masterpiece Je t’aime, Je t’aime, knows that one thing comes to mind when you mention the movie. [SPOILER ALERT] That, of course, is the jaw-droppingly-outrageous final scene, the formalist cherry on top of the modernist ice cream sundae that is this delicious film. Delight peaks in the film’s soon-to-be-famous closing line, a question posed by a heretofore unseen young girl to her mother: “Mummy, when I’m a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?” Driving the point dizzyingly home, this closing line reaches near-perfection as it illustrates the sheer formal mastery Resnais has possessed all his career, but in which he takes more pleasure here than he has in a very long time.
More on the line’s meaning, and relevance, to come: keep reading as we unveil the top ten list Resnais inspired—a compilation of the Ten Greatest Closing Lines of All Time*. (Warning: serious spoilers abound.)
*Note that the obvious, classic, overused options—Dr. Strangelove, Some Like It Hot, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca—are unused here, as they’re well-known enough.
10. “Do fish have dreams?”
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans
(Dir. Werner Herzog, 2009)
It’s tough to go wrong with a drugged-out Nicolas Cage delivering any line, and in this film—Cage’s greatest performance to date—he serves up plenty of gems (“I’ma kill all of y’all—to the break of dawn, baby!” “Shoot him again—his soul is still dancing”). In a film filled with bizarre non-sequiturs that take on profoundly powerful significance (this is, after all, a Werner Herzog film), this closing line is seemingly as random as everything else Herzog has thrown at us. However, posed out of nowhere, with Cage and the former-convict/now-hotel-bellhop whose life he once saved sitting in front of an aquarium, it reaches a poignant level of poetry that nicely sums up the film’s endearing bizarreness.
9. “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
(Dir. David Fincher, 1999)
As with the previous entry, here, setting is everything. Watching one building after another explode into rubble, holding hands with Marla (Helena Bonham-Carter) as the world seemingly ends, it would be tough for our Narrator’s (Edward Norton) last line to not be imbued with meaning. And yet, with the first stirrings of “Where Is My Mind” beginning to play, the closing line does exceed all expectations, a gross understatement as darkly comic as it is poignant.
8. “Regarding love, heh, what can you say? It's not the quantity of your sexual relations that counts, it's the quality. On the other hand, if the quantity drops below once every eight months, I would definitely look into it. Well, that's about it for me, folks. Goodbye.”
Love and Death
(Dir. Woody Allen, 1975)
Allen ended his funniest film—and the last work of his “Funny Movies” period—with a no-holds-barred, direct-address monologue that contains some of his best writing, ever. Easily his most freewheeling work, the jokes in Love and Death never seem to stop coming, a complete embarrassment of riches. Little did audiences realize at the time that when he said, “Goodbye,” he was walking away from a style of filmmaking to which he would never return: his next movie was called Annie Hall (yes, funny, but not in the same way).
7. “I’m finished!”
If Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview is the monster of capitalism incarnate, he is also, by the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s stunner, said monster’s audience: the ultimate consumer, unconcerned with ethics of any sort. This gem of a closing line perfectly encapsulated where Plainview found himself, the extreme of where unfettered riches takes all of us: to a place where murder is of no more consequence than finishing the food on one’s plate, or—dare I say it—the milkshake in one’s glass.
6. “Now I feel old too.”
(Dir. Edward Yang, 2000)
Anyone who manages to make it through the close of Yi Yi—Edward Yang’s masterpiece and one of the greatest films of the 2000s—without shedding at least a few tears should be checked for heart failure. As young Yang-Yang speaks to his recently deceased grandmother’s casket at her funeral, he puts forth a speech that is a summation of the coming-to-terms, the compromising, that has been an ongoing process for all of the characters in this family drama. Directly before the final line, Yang-Yang tells his grandmother how badly he misses her. What Yang (the director) is posing is that coming to terms with pain, making compromises over past regrets, is a crucial part of growing up and growing older. Learning to understand this is at the center of this magnificent film.
5. “No, I’m not vile—I’m a woman.”
A Woman Is A Woman
(Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
They fight. They make up. They fight again. And there are lots of puns. This is the essence of A Woman Is A Woman, Godard’s third feature and his most New Wave-y. The final sequence is Brialy and Karina, sleeping together in order to do away with rancor over some infidelities on her behalf and some obnoxiousness on his. Afterwards, in bed, Brialy remarks, “Angela, tu es infâme”—literally, “Angela, you’re vile.” (In all fairness, she has more or less put him through hell the entire film, which began because she wanted to have a baby—they’re not married—and he isn’t having it until they tie the knot.) Karina’s perfect reply, the closing line—“Non, je ne suis pas infâme, je suis une femme”—is predicated upon the fact that “infâme” (which means vile) and “une femme” (which means a woman) sound very much alike. What would easily be blatant misogyny today, when situated in both socio-historical (1961, France) and cinematic (the playful peak of the extremely-playful-to-begin-with New Wave) context has to be understood for what it really was: a wildly clever pun that expresses the deep intimacy and love these characters feel for one another, as well as the ultimate zinger to cap this neo-screwball French battle of the sexes.
4. “Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown.”
(Dir. Roman Polanski, 1974)
Another uplifting closer. With these five words, Polanski and writer Robert Towne spun audience expectations resoundingly on their heads, as it became all too clear that the bad guys will win, and the good guys, despite giving it everything they’ve got, are simply too weak in the grand scheme of things. The nihilism embraced by the closing line is anything but easygoing—rather, it is a bitter recourse taken by those who have tried to beat the system, and failed. An utter heartbreaker.
3. “Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry to the end of time.”
Night and Fog
(Dir. Alain Resnais, 1956)
The greatest film ever made about this impossibly difficult subject (“There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno once remarked), this 1956 Holocaust documentary benefitted from the shared talents of director Resnais and assistant director Chris Marker, who would go on to make equally important works (La Jetee, Sans Soleil). Seamlessly interweaving archival concentration-camp footage with black and white footage shot in the present day, the film eloquently made the crucial point that human nature had not changed in the intervening 11 years, and genocide could just as easily strike again at some point. As the words Rwanda and Darfur (amongst others) indicate, they were unfortunately all too right. The measured conviction of the closing narration will give you chills.
2. “Mummy, when I’m a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?”
(Dir. Alain Resnais, 2009)
There are seemingly as many explanations for this at-first-head-scratcher as there are people who’ve seen the film. This critic has heard that it’s Sabine Azéma’s recently-deceased aviatrix flashing back to a random moment from her childhood, right before she dies—but the production design of the home is far too modern for that to be the case. Another theory is that it’s the same just-dead woman’s future, as she is reincarnated as a young girl. These hew a bit too close to the literal for Resnais’ taste, no doubt. Rather, we have to accept this non-sequitur ending as what it is—a random moment taken from life. Yes, it has no relation to anything else that has come before it in the film—but that is exactly Resnais’ point. Planes crash, people die, and life moves on; people are still preoccupied with the same silly things they always were; life is ultimately an infinite array of moments, each one miraculously lucky to have come into being. This sentiment, in and of itself, is nothing particularly new; what makes the ending of Wild Grass genius is that it has never been employed with such confidence in cinematic language, let alone in the prized position of a film’s denouement.
1. “The horror…the horror.”
(Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Years in the making, including an 18-month shoot that pushed Coppola to the brink of financial ruin (not to mention insanity) and gave star Martin Sheen a heart attack, Apocalypse Now is one of those instances where the madness of the film being made irreparably rubbed off on the people making it. The simplicity of Marlon Brando’s hushed final line, as dark as the jungle in which he dies, is what gives the line its power: here, less is truly more. No sweeping speech or grandiose statements are needed to inform us of the insanity of war, what it does to man—Coppola has already shown us that quite well. Now, two words suffice to sum it all up with poetic brevity. “The horror” not only speaks to the horror of Vietnam, but the horror of man’s existence itself, all of the ways in which we have failed as a race. A devastating final pronouncement.
How did we do? What's your favorite last line? Let us know in the comments below.