Into the Sunset: Cinema’s Greatest Swan Songs

As they say in The Lion King, “It’s the circle of life.” And, just like with life, there’s a circular pattern to the careers of many directors.

Their early films tend toward rough experiments. Then they mature and develop their own distinct artistic voice. Finally, secure in their success, they drive off into the sunset of their career, all too often trading in the fame they had at their peak for something more like the obscurity they started with. We’ll drop The Lion King here and take a moment to picture that 1948 Ford from Grease as it soars through the sky, Sandy and Danny schmoozing inside. Then, the car drops.

The decline of a director’s work at the end of their career is an all-too-common trend. But, luckily for cinephiles, trends exist for one reason alone: To be utterly defied. The remarkable Bèla Tarr (Sátántangó, Kárhozat) has been one of those to prove this unfortunate trend wrong with his fantastic The Turin Horse, out in theaters this Friday, which the legendary director has stated will be his final film.

The film has as its basis an unlikely anecdote: In 1889, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the man behind some of the greatest thought of the 19th century, lost his sanity after witnessing the brutal beating of a horse in Turin, Italy. We know Nietzsche’s sad end: Mute and mentally ill, he died 11 years after the incident. What we don’t know is what many—besides Tarr, that is—never thought to ask: What happened to the horse and the man who beat it? In The Turin Horse, Tarr crafts an answer to those questions that encompasses the entirety of a tragic environment beautifully and with a deliberate, painful rhythm.

If The Turin Horse truly does end up being Tarr’s final film, he will have ended his directing career on a gloriously sustained high note. While the film inspires thought on philosophical questions about life and what makes it worth living, it also got us thinking about other stunning final films by directors who refused to leave their legacy poorly wrapped. There’s a hearteningly large number of fantastic final films out there, so for brevity’s sake we’ve pulled aside three of the greats… films that truly kept Grease’s Ford flying.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
directed by Luis Buñuel


Luis Buñuel, just like the cinematic surrealist movement he’s the undisputed father of, is definitely not for everyone. He’s known for pushing the boundaries of what audiences expect from cinema as well as for just plain pushing boundaries. However, even critics of Buñuel’s shocking style (see: The eye-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou) have to admit he has an unparalleled ability to tell stories in a way that is at once absurd and deep. By casting two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, to play a single character in That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel refused to let his audience off easy. It was a risky move, but it more than worked, adding a seething sexual tension and multifaceted character study to the script that may not have existed if Conchita had been played by one actress. Thus, Buñuel created a triumphant and bizarre finale for his triumphant and bizarre career.

Three Colors: Red (1994)
directed by Krzysztof Kielowski


With the touching melancholy of Blue and the bittersweet comedy of White, director Krzysztof Kielowski had already established a powerful repertoire by the time he made this, the final film in his Three Colors Trilogy. With Red, though, he managed to outdo even himself. An emotional collection of slowly intertwining stories (he even brings in characters from Blue and White), the world of Red is at once unrealistic and believable. At the time of his death at the age of 54, the director, who had already announced his retirement, was co-writing a trilogy (tentatively titled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory) loosely based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Though he never got the chance to make those films, Three Colors: Red serves as a fitting end, not only to the Three Colors Trilogy, but also to Kielowski’s career.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
directed by Stanley Kubrick


Kubrick himself claimed that the final film of his career is also his best, and whether or not we agree with him, it’s hard not to admit that Eyes Wide Shut is a a great piece of art. Slow, dream-like and unabatedly candid, it serves as a culmination of many of the cinematic themes Kubrick explored throughout his career. As with other Kubrick films, Eyes Wide Shut was controversial upon its release, which the legendary director did not live to see. More than 10 years later, the film has remained in the public psyche in a terrifyingly erotic way, challenging convention in a manner that Kubrick perhaps foresaw when it named it his greatest accomplishment.

Did we leave out your favorite final film? Disagree with one of our choices? Drop us a comment and let us know. MM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.