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A rueful hurdy-gurdy provides the recurring theme. I'm Going Home opens with Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli) onstage, more whining about than raging against the dying light as the title character in Eugène Ionesco's absurdist intimation of mortality, Exit the King. This raggedy production is the first of the movie's three lengthy quotations. (Oliveira also alludes to his own films by employing a number of performers familiar from his previous work; Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich both appeared in Oliveira's 1995 comedy of academic obsession, The Convent.) Oliveira's staging is more avant-garde than the play's; he willfully contrives to have Piccoli turned away from the camera. Something is happening backstage; after his curtain call, Valence is informed that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have been killed in a car crashleaving him only his 12-year-old grandson.
Oliveira does not invite the viewer to mourn Valence's loss. The filmmaker's concern is with the actor's transformation. "Some time later," per a formal title, we see the old man alone in a dark room on a beautiful day. Nevertheless, he can still smile, sign autographs, and riff with café waiters. Indeed, Valence is back onstage, playing Prospero in The Tempest. On impulse, he even buys a pair of expensive brogue shoes. These become one of the movie's key metaphors. Oliveira grants them a lengthy close-up even as Valence's pushy agent, who is hoping to land his client a role in a cheesy made-for-TV movie, suggests that he has become too isolated. "Don't forget, I actI'm constantly in someone else's shoes," Valence tells him. All is vanity. Leaving the meeting, the actor is mugged by a junkie who absconds with his footwear as well as his wallet.
A 93-year-old can scarcely be unacquainted with loss. Oliveira's camera placement is blithely distanced. (The frequent scenes shot through shop windows effectively convert the action to pantomime.) Pointedly set on the eve of the millennium, I'm Going Home is restrained, precise, and unobtrusively wry. Luxuriating in "empty" moments, Oliveira is more interested in habitual behavior than human misery. The big dramatic turn comes when Valence is called for an urgent meeting with an American director (Malkovich) who is on location in France shooting an English-language version of the original unadaptable text, James Joyce's Ulysses. The actor playing Buck Mulligan has come down sick and Valence is thrown into the breach.
Piccoli, a relative youth at 76, albeit a saturnine performer with no shortage of joie de vivre, enjoys a role that allows him full range: doddering monster, wise enchanter, genial celebrity, stubborn artist, doting grandfather, and, finally, miscast actor. Grossly made up in a wig and pasted-on mustache, Valence is hopelessly wrong for the part of Mulligan, even before he opens his mouth and his heavily accented, garbled English clashes with the rest of the cast's brogues. Valence stumbles through the role, perhaps closer to Ionesco's pathetic monarch than he would like to admit. To add to the dry comedy, most of the scene is played out in the mirror of the director's impassively appalled reaction.
New beginning or false start? It's suggestive that the film within the film never gets beyond Ulysses' first few pages. Escaping the studio, Piccoli is warmly affecting and so is this adroitly minimalist movie. Take the title as you willOliveira's confidence is exceeded only by his serenity.
I'm Going Home
Written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira
Through August 27 at Film Forum
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