Like life itself, good movies sometimes change the subject on you in midparagraph. You think you’re watching the story of an elderly man in mourning, buoying himself up against grief and then realize he’s started to worry about younger women, who have such a distressing preference for younger men. Or you settle down to enjoy a satire about the movie business, only to figure out that most of its characters, though peculiar to Los Angeles, have little or nothing to do with filmmaking.
As you probably know by now, the not-quite-Hollywood story emerges in Full Frontal, written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven Soderbergh. The elderly man’s predicament is the subject of I’m Going Home, written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira. It’s not just the coincidence of an August release that prompts me to put these films together. Although one is a high-art meditation by a nonagenarian Portuguese master, the other a sketchlike quickie by a pop-drenched American, both films express a fascination with playacting: its evasions and distortions, as well as its unforeseeable matchups with reality. Despite the difference in provenance, the two pictures also tell us something about the working conditions of today’s more interesting filmmakers.
More on that later. Right now, I want to rush Michel Piccoli onto the scene, so I can tell you how he first appears in I’m Going Home: doddering at death’s threshold and having the time of his life at it.
I’m Going Home casts Piccoli as Gilbert, a celebrated French actor, who in the opening sequence is onstage in a production of Ionesco’s Exit the King–a role that calls for him to stumble about in a cloak that looks like some kid’s security blanket, thrown over a grayish pair of thermal underwear. The figure he cuts is ancient, palsied, pathetic; but when he turns his back to the audience to deliver the play’s final tirade, Gilbert chews and sucks and spits out his words, roars and rasps and bellows and croons with the self-confidence of a great actor working at full power. Without needing to show his face, without even moving, Gilbert dominates his world.
Controlling it is another matter. While this opening sequence plays out–Oliveira has the nerve to prolong it for an astonishing fifteen minutes–three agents of mortality come calling for Gilbert. “I can’t hear you. Your words scare me,” he protests from the stage, when the dark messengers peep into the theater. At that, they withdraw; but they don’t retreat. Taking up positions in the wings, they wait to pronounce their doom, while Gilbert, as king, seems to hold them off with a whine: “I never had time.” But once the applause sounds, he can no longer evade the news; and so these fates in their business suits tell him that his family has died in a car accident–wife, daughter and son-in-law, all at once. Despite the close attention the camera has been paying to Gilbert, we don’t see him receive this blow. Oliveira discreetly allows the information to reach him when he’s out of the frame. Then Gilbert clatters down a staircase and is gone.