By Stephanie Zacharek
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Since average folk can't often afford to fly to Paris (unless they live, say, in Lyon), 93-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira offers some consolation in the form of I¹m Going Home (Je Rentre à la Maison). Shot more than two years ago, it's a seemingly sweet and deceptively simple little film that's designed to showcase the great city on the Seine via the experiences of a senior thespian named Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli). Ostensibly pedestrian in its depiction of Valence's foibles on and off stage, the film studiously avoids cinematic and emotional grandstanding in favor of extremely subtle but generally effective portraiture.
Given that de Oliveira is something of a veteran himself -- he began directing in 1929 and released his first feature for adults, Past and Present (O Passado e o Presente), in 1972, at the age of 63 -- there's a loose, autobiographical quality to I'm Going Home. The character of Valence is a fair sight younger than the nonagenarian, but Piccoli's half-century of experience -- he's been directed by Buñuel, Godard, Hitchcock and Renoir, among others -- affords him the authority to play the aging Valence as both cuddly (indulging in a shoe fetish or a token grandkid) and curmudgeonly (curtly eschewing crass companionship and tacky TV roles). Their personae combined, director and actor allow Valence's slow, casual observations and philosophies to flow most elegantly.
Not so much a plotted story as a series of impressions, I'm Going Home is constructed around three classic dramatic works. A performance of Ionesco's Exit the King takes up the first fifteen minutes of the movie, tellingly offering Valence in the egomaniacal title role, having his scepter taken away, shouting, "Don't come any nearer! You scare me with your pity." He delivers most of his lines with his back turned, providing a smart contrast to the actor himself, who casually window-shops in the Parisian streets, signing autographs for fans.
Although a concluding segment involving a filmed version of Joyce's Ulysses provides the movie's most engaging (and starkly minimalist) interaction, it's the middle segment -- a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest with Valence as Prospero -- that forms the core of de Oliveira's thesis. Although he's no flaming Gielgud (and would likely consider Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books too vulgar for viewing), Valence seizes the role of the disenfranchised duke, impassioned with the magical spirits of his environment, yet detached from his true seat of power. With the line, "Be mute, or else our spell is marr'd," volumes are spoken for the director, who often favors protracted shots (from a distance, behind glass) sans dialogue to convey the largely unspoken alienation of Valence.
Although on the surface it doesn't look it, I'm Going Home is indeed a tragedy. It may be enjoyed for its blithe sense of floating through Paris -- there's even a visual gag involving obsessive seating choices in a cafe -- but Valence is, beneath his gregarious masks, a profoundly lonely man staring into oblivion. (When he's attacked by a young thug, it feels exactly like portly Jack Nicholson being harassed by urban youth in Wolf, minus the grisly revenge.) The Ionesco play ends with Valence dissolving into mad chuckles and playing ring toss with his crown and foot, but swiftly -- almost obscurely -- he learns that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in a car crash. In an American movie, this would lead to at least 45 minutes of some leathery old ham crying while subliminal cards reading "Oscar nom!" flashed throughout. But here we get a man doing what men do -- covering up -- and the impact extends well beyond the closing credits.
Because the project mainly concerns the old man, his work and his glorious city, the rest of the supporting cast is employed very sparsely. Catherine Deneuve's presence within the Ionesco play lends the project the depth of her experience (and it's always nice to see her), but fans should note that she's here strictly for a cameo. Likewise the formidable Antoine Chappey (La Lettre), who plays Valence's persnickety agent. Foremost among the supporting talent is John Malkovich, who appears near the end of the film as John Crawford, the director of the Ulysses movie. (Along with Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds and E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, it's yet another example of Malkovich playing an effete, pretentious film director. Call it a gift.) Although the character's purpose is pretty sketchy, de Oliveira craftily exploits his presence, lingering on Crawford/Malkovich's mug for a full five minutes -- no cutaways -- as Valence struggles with Joyce's convoluted dialogue. The confusing, demanding role finally brings the actor home, and us with him.
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