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'I'm Going Home'

Mood is grim in 'I'm Going Home'

Friday, October 04, 2002

By Barry Paris Post-Gazette Film Critic

No veteran actor in Paris is more famous than Gilbert Valence, currently performing the title role in Ionesco's absurdist drama "Exit the King." We are introduced to him, pacing and prancing as a befuddled old monarch who wants to be reborn and immortalized at the same time. It's a pretty static production of a pretty static play. There's not a lot of life on stage.

'I'm Going Home'

RATING: PG-13 in nature for adult themes

STARRING: Michel Piccoli, John Malkovich, Catherine Deneuve

DIRECTOR: Manoel de Oliveira

WEB SITE: milestonefilms.com/


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There's death backstage, where three somber men wait for him to finish his performance before informing him that his wife, daughter and son-in-in-law have been killed in a car accident.

Such is the grim beginning -- and ongoing essence -- of "I'm Going Home," Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira's downbeat ode to sorrow and solitude.

If there's no more famous actor than Gilbert, there's no greater living French character actor than the man who plays him: Michel Piccoli, versatile featured player (never star) of some 100 films since the 1950s, constituting a who's who of important Euro-cinema -- Godard ("Passion"), Costa-Gavras ("Sleeping Car Murders"), Hitchcock ("Topaz"), Clement ("Is Paris Burning?"), Resnais ("La Guerre est finie"), Bunuel ("Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"), Louis Malle ("Atlantic City"), Chabrol, Vargas -- on and on.

Here, finally, he gets his own vehicle as an artiste in proud decline, left with a 6-year-old grandson (Jean Koeltgen) he loves but doesn't quite love enough. It's a curious script, full of ritualistic repetitions: Every day Gilbert sits at the same cafe table that is occupied by the same man as soon as he leaves. He repeatedly resists the TV offers proposed by his agent (Antoine Chappey). He buys elegant new shoes -- only to be relieved of them by a mugger, and left in his socks.

Eventually, the agent comes up with an offer he can't refuse: the role of Buck Mulligan in American director John Malkovich's film based on "Ulysses"! But he has to learn the tough English lines in three days. The makeup, the wig -- depressing. The dialogue -- impossible. He falters.

In a series of long, lingering, subtle scenes -- the film's best -- we see Gilbert's action through the reaction on Malkovich's face. We never see Piccoli. The entire conversation with his agent about his wife's and daughter's deaths is conducted with the camera fixed steadfastly on his right shoe.

The Ionesco, the Shakespeare, the Joyce -- all their renderings are oddly stilted. Catherine Deneuve? Wasted in a cameo role. Gilbert gives up: "Je rentre a la maison" -- I'm going home, he concludes. This is Michel Piccoli's equivalent of Olivier's "The Entertainer." Full of moody photography and brooding silences, it's not for the frothy but the pithy.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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