I’m Going Home
The films of the ninety-three year old, Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliviera (since everyone usually notes it in their discussion of de Oliviera, I should too, de Oliviera is the only director active today, whose career stretches back to the silent era), are popular among many critics that I admire (such as Jonathan Rosenbaum), so I was elated when I learned the other day, that his 2001 film, I’m Going Home
was opening this weekend in Madison. It also doesn’t hurt that it stars Michel Piccoli, one of my favorite French actors. They delivered a quietly sad masterpiece, an examination of mortality and aging. De Oliviera’s film shares many qualities I admire in other contemporary international art cinema directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Takeshi Kitano: a wonderful visual, observant, yet restrained (Kitano is probably the most baroque of these directors in this regard) imagination, that fills the frame with a variety of details, any of which could become important at any given time; and a willingness to allow important events to transpire off-camera, either completely ellided or in some kind of off-screen space, thus providing opportunity for the audience to reflect and fill in the gaps themselves. I think it is these two factors that lend such a rich, novelistic density to the films of these directors (Clint Eastwood, though working primarily in genre cinema, is a prime example of an American director working in this mold).
The story of I’m Going Home
is deceptively simple: Piccoli plays Gilbert Valence, an aging Parisian film and theater actor of some repute.
At the beginning of the film, Gilbert is starring in a rendition of Eugene Ionescu’s play Exit the King
(a scene which features a cameo by Catherine Deneuve); in a 10-15 minute sequence, we watch the final scenes of the play. Gilbert plays the titular role, a once all-powerful monarch succumbing to the ravages of age and senility. The aging makeup that Piccoli wears is one of those important details that only becomes ironically relevant much later in the film. The scenes from the play are only interrupted by a few shots of the appreciative audience, and several shots of some glum men waiting in the wings. At the end of the performance, these men (one of whom, we later learn is Gilbert’s agent), take Gilbert aside, to his dressing room, to tell him that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law were killed in a car accident. However, this revelation occurs off-screen, so we never see Gilbert’s reaction to the news; instead, the camera dwells with Gilbert’s fellow cast members backstage, who learn of the news from the theater manager. Our last glimpse of Gilbert in this scene is of him rushing off to the hospital, with his back to the camera. This is but one example of de Oliviera’s restraint, which could be frustrating to many viewers, but I think is one of his strengths, allowing the viewer to fill his own emotions into the scene. And anyone desiring more information will be disappointed. The film cuts to black, and a title, in French, announces “some time later.”
The rest of the film deals with the personal and professional aftermath. I think that it is significant that the film occurs some time near the millennium (we get a few shots of Paris at night, with the Eiffel tower lit up with a prominent 2000 sign in the foreground), a momentous occasion to be sure, a beginning, but also an end. I hope I wasn’t the only one who felt the time slipping away among all of the festivities of the millennium. Anyway, Gilbert is left to take care of his young grandson, Serge, with the part-time help of his housekeeper and Serge’s other set of grandparents; actually, Gilbert reveals that he actually sees very little of Serge, as “they keep different hours.” Our first glimpse of post-accident Gilbert is of him waking up, sometime late in the morning. Wearing a robe, he stumbles out of bed and opens the drapes and shades, gazing down lovingly upon the housekeeper putting Serge’s midday snack into his backpack. Gilbert then picks up a large-framed picture that sits on a dresser, a picture that we never actually see (I’m assuming it was a picture of his wife or family).
Repetition is very important in the movie, both emphasizing the everyday-lived reality of the movie’s characters, as well as the routine that Gilbert’s life has fallen into (even if he takes pleasure in it; I mean I have a routine, and I only do those things because I like them). There are at least four scenes of Gilbert watching the housekeeper tuck the snack into Serge’s knapsack, and we see Gilbert pick up the unseen picture twice. The repetition is never really remarked upon by anyone in the film, and de Oliviera does nothing to really draw our attention to it, except in one (actually three) important instances.
Our first glimpse of Gilbert outside his home, is of him sitting at a window seat, near the door of a cafe, sipping espresso, and reading a newspaper. The camera remains outside the cafe, gazing at him. The waiter comes over, they are obviously on good terms, he is a regular, and Gilbert pays his tab, rolls up his newspaper, and leaves the cafe. However, the camera remains behind, aimed at the same cafe table. After a few moments, another middle-aged man arrives at the cafe, a businessman in a suit, who sits down, greets the waiter in much of the same way as before, and sits down and begins reading the newspaper Le Figaro
. The next few scenes follow Gilbert as he strolls down the sidewalk, just browsing the displays in the shop-windows. Silently, he stops and gazes at a painting of a man and woman dancing the tango underneath the umbrellas of their servants; the shopkeeper sees him, and she goes outside to talk with him. The camera remains inside the shop, looking out into the street, the only sound being the muffled street sounds from outside (which becomes a bit louder whenever the shop door opens; again the film’s soundtrack is as detailed as the rest of the film). She leaves and he continues to gaze at the painting, interrupted by a pair of young girls who ask for his autograph, which he obliges. They leave and the shopkeeper returns and you think that she is going to sell him the painting, but instead she too asks him for an autograph. It may not sound very funny, but the way that de Oliviera stages the scene, lends it a slyly comic air (the refusal to really allow the audience to know what is happening, the unexpected reversal, especially after the two autograph seekers). The next scene is similar. Farther down the sidewalk, Gilbert spies some leather wing tips in a shop window. The camera stops as Gilbert looks at them, and remains there; however, in the background of the shop (again the camera remains stationary, but this time outside the store), you can see Gilbert sit down and motion to the clerk to fetch those pair of shoes. Again, I found it funny because it was so unexpected, and playful, not qualities I was expecting in a film of this nature. You also get the impression that these new shoes are something of a splurge for Gilbert, who puts them on right away (the shoes become a more important motif later in the film).
Gilbert’s professional life does not seem to be suffering. Our next glimpse of him is work is of a scene from his newest performance, as Prospero in a translation of The Tempest
; we are again treated to another extended sequence from the play, this time Prospero’s giving his blessings to the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda (played by an actress named Sylvie). Again, waiting in the wings is one of the same men, who told Gilbert about the accident. We later learn that he is Gilbert’s agent, and the agent notices Sylvie’s obvious affection for Gilbert. The next scene is between the agent and Gilbert, a long nighttime conversation in a cafe. However, during the first half of the conversation, de Oliviera’s camera focuses on the actors’ feet (Gilbert is wearing his new shoes), with Gilbert somewhat nervously shifting his feet back and forth. The agent asks Gilbert how he feels, obviously referring to his life situation, but Gilbert instead refers to how well his new shoes feel. You get the impression that the new shoes that Gilbert bought on a whim, are nothing more than distractions, and not very good ones. Gilbert is nervous, but begins to open up to the agent (this is where we learn the details of his relationship with Serge, as well as the fact that Gilbert prefers to live in “solitudine”), but dismisses the notion that he should date Sylvie as “roguish.” The conversation ends after the agent brings up a possible TV role, though Gilbert is openly skeptical of TV, preferring his tried and true home in the theater and film. Gilbert declines a ride home and begins to walk to his taxi station when he is mugged by a junkie with a syringe. Without protest, Gilbert hands over his coat, his watch, and his new shoes. The way that Gilbert hesitates, you think he may be planning something, but instead he does nothing, and instead shuffles off in his socks like nothing important really happened.
The next day, we find a reprise of the earlier cafe shot; the camera stays outside the cafe watching Gilbert finish his coffee and roll up his paper, which we see is the same newspaper as before, Liberation
, and leave, only to be followed a few moments later by the same businessman who read Le Figaro
(he’s actually identified in the credits as “the man who reads Le Figaro
). Gilbert goes off to his agent’s office, and is somewhat surprised that Sylvie is there. They notice that he is not wearing his new shoes, and he nonchalantly tells them that he was mugged, seeming not to care much. The agent proceeds to pitch the role to Gilbert; it is an action role in a television series, where he plays an old, wealthy man who is seduced and betrayed by a younger woman, and then goes to seek revenge. Gilbert angrily denounces the role due to the sex and violence, as well as the TV aspect; however, their are subtexts that he is angry that the agent is obviously trying to set him up with Sylvie, who is also promised a role in the show (presumably as the seductress), and that the role is that off an old cuckold. Gilbert angrily storms off demanding that his agent find him a more appropriate role.
In the next sequence, we see Gilbert exit a store with a wrapped package, like a birthday gift. He again goes to the cafe, but is a first distracted by a pushcart calliope operator playing just outside the entrance. He stops for a few moments and gives the man a few coins (just a note, similar music plays over both the beginning and end credits).
He sits down at the seat, in a reprise of the two earlier shots, though this of course, starts earlier than the usual exit. However, because of the earlier delay, the man who reads Le Figaro
comes in short afterwards. He’s flummoxed by Gilbert’s presence, and somewhat annoyed, finds another table in the opposite corner of the cafe, the camera pans with this man and watches him as he tries to sit down at the new table. He’s very uncomfortable, his entire routine has been disrupted. He looks back at his usual table and sees Gilbert finish his coffee, roll up his paper, and exit. The Le Figaro
man picks up his own items and walks back to his usual table, only to find another middle-aged man, this time reading Le Monde
, sitting down at the table. This rather comical sequence, with the way the camera tracks back and forth lingering at the end of each arc, emphasizes, both the way minor events can have (somewhat) major consequences, the precarious nature of routine, and the affects of that the disruption of routine can have upon people. It’s a bit of foreshadowing for what is to come next. But first, we get one moment of unambiguous joy from Gilbert, as he plays with Serge’s new toy, a pair of radio controlled cars.
The next day, Gilbert is roused out of bed early by his agent, who is eager for him to come to his office. The grousing Gilbert relents; when he comes to the office he finds his agent with an American film director named John Crawford (played by John Malkovich). Crawford is in desperate need of an actor to play Buck Mulligan in his adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysse
, which he is shooting in Paris. Gilbert agrees, despite the fact that the film is in English, a language Gilbert can speak, but not well, and that he is way too old for the part. To add to the pressure, he only has three days to learn the script. Despite the absurdity of it all, Gilbert accepts the role (it’s something “important,” and “interesting”) We see Gilbert in a make-up chair; the camera is shooting into the mirror, and we see the make-up person slowly apply the makeup and fake mustache for his role, as the hair dresser applies to the wig. Walla, Gilbert, in makeup, looks twenty years younger, but it is all an illusion. On set, the actors begin their rehearsal with Crawford, who after showing guiding them through the blocking, sits down next to the camera.
The entire rehearsal sequence plays out as a long-take, close-up of Malkovich’s face as he watches the performance, cringing every time that the heavily accented Gilbert makes a line-reading mistake, stopping to correct every mistake (which is very often). After they run through the scene, he dismisses everyone and encourages Gilbert to return home and study the script for the remainder of the day, perhaps trying to salvage anything.
Serge is alarmed to find his grandfather passed out, exhausted on the sofa, when he returns home (the staging leaves open the possibility that Gilbert may have actually died). Gilbert is awakened and tries to cover up that something is wrong, but fails to assuage his grandson’s concerns. Gilbert just looks uncomfortable, he’s clearly over his head with a part that he is too old for (even in make-up he looks ridiculous next to the other, English actors), in a language he is not comfortable with. They begin shooting the next day, and each time, the camera is forced to stop because of a problem with Gilbert’s line-reading. After four takes, Gilbert completely forgets his dialogue (apparently the film was inspired by a real-life incident of an actor in his 70s forgetting his lines); the shooting halts. To the surprise of everyone, instead of getting ready for the next take, Gilbert just leaves, telling Crawford “I’m Going Home.” He says it rather perfunctorily, dropping his rain coat as he walks off the set; nobody tries to stop him, they all just stare at him as he walks off. Rather pathetically, Gilbert shuffles through the streets of Paris in his make-up, wig, and costume, mumbling over his lines over and over again, trying to remember the correct phrasing. Even in his “youthful” make-up, Gilbert is more like the king he played in the Ionescu play, grasping at straws (his walkout can’t be good for his career), and it’s all very sad, even if de Oliviera throws in a gag here and there. Eventually, he makes it to his gated home and walks right past Serge, who watches his grandfather, now broken and tired, trudge up the stairs to bed. It is like all of the repressed emotions and pain have come to the surface, prompted by the stress of the shoot, finally leaving Gilbert exhausted both physically and mentally. The film ends with a close-up of Serge watching Gilbert, the concern evident on his face, finally realizing his grandfather’s mortality. It’s a scary and sad moment, yet typically, observant and restrained.