Jacques Malaterre’s Ao, le dernier Néandertal is a 2010 film about the fateful encounter between Neanderthals and modern humans. It’s also, as usual in this genre, a love story – with the usual pattern of gender and race: the man is a Neanderthal and the woman a Cro-Magnon (or Homo sapiens). In English the film is called Ao, the Last Hunter, just in case we don’t know what Neanderthals are.
It’s the kind of film it would be easy to mock. I actually think it’s pretty good – bar one major flaw. Malaterre brought to this feature film the experience of having made three ambitious drama-documentaries about human evolution. Exquisite attention is given to the prehistoric peoples’ material culture, there are superb locations and a meaningful story, and the Neanderthals’ facial make-up is the most convincing I’ve seen. The physique of Simon Paul Sutton, who plays Ao, is less convincing. He’s certainly very fit, but Neanderthal man’s build was much stockier – probably needs either CGI or a very clever body suit to be truly realistic.
The major flaw is the voiceover of the two main characters’ thoughts. The DVD has no option without it. Whether you endure it in English or in French, it seriously undermines the film: the voice actors sound like they’re reading and their tone of voice is incongruously modern. Better just to leave us guessing the meaning of the characters’ own prehistoric languages.
The film’s depiction of Neanderthal man both plays to and subverts the stereotypes. Ao’s mode of courting the woman, Aki, is crude indeed – he even goes into a sulk after he has to be forcibly stopped from raping her – but he’s sweet with babies and able to commune with animals. Think Dr Doolittle as noble savage. In contrast to the heavily ornamented and body-painted and generally rapacious Cro-Magnons. If Ao really is the last Neanderthal, then he’s a symbol, incarnate in one man, of the natural world that Homo sapiens has been progressively destroying from the word go.
That said, the racial politics of the film-making give food for thought. Ao and his clansmen are very white-skinned, as one might expect of a people that evolved in Ice Age Europe. Aki, the one Cro-Magnon we see not covered with paint, is evidently non-white (played by Aruna Shields), loosely in keeping with modern humans having evolved in Africa and later migrating into Europe. The earlier French film La guerre du feu (Quest for Fire) has the same pairing of a Neanderthal(ish) man and a Cro-Magnon woman again played by a non-white actress (Rae Dawn Chong). It’s always the man who is the caveman and the woman who comes from the more technologically sophisticated culture and has to educate him. It would be interesting to see a film present a romance between a Neanderthal woman and a Homo sapiens man. It’s already been done in prose fiction, of course. In fact I did it myself in one of the stories in Exotic Excursions.