i'm going home (2002)

director: manoel de oliveira

michel piccoli, catherine deneuve, john malkovich

Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home is meant to be a sad story, and to serve that end it's somber, careful, and solemnly paced. It's as if the director, whose career spans seven decades, has decided that, with a limited time left to do his work, he's better off concentrating on a single emotion.

Gilbert is a renowned theatre actor in the well-buffed golden years of his career. One night, while he performs onstage, his wife, daughter, and son-in-law all die in a car crash. Months later, Gilbert is back onstage, but returning home every night to where he and his housekeeper are raising his grandson. He doesn't seem to mourn, and goes about his days shopping and reading his paper at the same cafe, a ritual that seems never to have changed. He argues with his young agent about the roles he's willing to take, and has no problem maintaining a considerable estimate of his own reputation.

Gilbert, the venerable French actor, is played by Michel Piccoli, the venerable French actor, a fortuitous but unchallenging bit of casting. Offstage, Piccoli plays Gilbert with a toppling gravity that accounts for most, if not all, of the film's reason to exist. Onstage, though, Gilbert is a monolithic ham, and the "masterpiece" productions he appears in seem cheap, shoddy, and amateurish. Even more unwatchable is the movie adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses that Gilbert takes a role in, an apparently deadly project directed by a supposedly legendary American director, played by John Malkovich.

There's a preciousness to de Oliveira's work that works from assumptions that all "high" art is good, all commercial art bad, and that James Joyce should actually be made into movies. It's the same preciousness that makes Gilbert stare at a tacky poster print in a shop window - two sophisticates dancing on a windy beach - as if it's the very essence of the sublime.

If these lapses were meant to convey a hollowness to Gilbert's reputation, if not his whole life, they might make sense, but they're portrayed as works of art and integrity, and long stretches of the film are devoted to, for instance, an cringeworthy production of The Tempest where the sprites of the air are played by rags of coloured tissue suspended on wires. When Gilbert's final breakdown comes, prompting the line that gives the film its title, it seems less like a giant toppled than a mass of illusions finding their natural level, an effect that I'm not sure de Oliveira intended.