Bringing the lightest touches of humor to a contemporary tale set in Paris, Portuguese master and perennial Cannes favorite Manoel de Oliveira serves a thoroughly tasty morsel to the refined palates of cinephiles in “I’m Going Home.” Elusive and elliptical as it is, this is one of the most accessible films in Oliveira’s recent repetoire, where his work has leaned heavily on adaptations of period novels and ecclesiastical letters. Here, in the personal drama of an aging man forced to come to terms with passing time and the proximity of death, the cultural baggage needed to enjoy the film is lighter. Its principal appeal lies in a stunning central turn from Michel Piccoli in the role of a great French actor, a perf that will undoubtedly be in the running when acting awards are doled out. Marketing pic as a cult item, adventurous distribs should be able to exploit a smallish role by the versatile John Malkovich to widen audiences a bit.
Like all Oliveira’s work, the film is an intellectual jigsaw puzzle teasing the viewer to connect the pieces. Whether they fit is less important than forcing the mind to make associations, leapfrogging from theater to shoes, from personal tragedy to Paris. Opening with a long excerpt from Eugene Ionesco’s play “Exit the King,” in which Oliveira regulars Catherine Deneuve and Leonor Silveira guest star, the film seems at first set to revolve around inside jokes and to indulge in the director’s penchant for literary adaptations. Instead the mood changes when three men appear backstage, waiting for Gilbert to wrap the play. They bear the bad news that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in a car crash.
Time passes and Gilbert gets back into his old routines, splitting his time between his grandson, who lives with him and brings him to life, and the theater. He’s now playing Prospero in “The Tempest” and, powerful as he is, must reflect that “we are such stuff that dreams are made of.” The family tragedy seems repressed. He adjusts to his solitude.
His agent (played straight by Antoine Chappey) makes several indecent proposals which, the film suggests, he rightly refuses. The first is starting a relationship with young actress Sylvie (Leonor Baldaque), whose attentions don’t interest him. The second is big money for doing a TV actioner full of sex and violence. Instead, he accepts the offer made by American director John Crawford (Malkovich) to play the Irish Buck Mulligan in an American-French co-production of (joke) Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.” The casting is ridiculous, but Gilbert is so great he almost pulls it off.
The real question is where he can go, now that his life and career have peaked. An emphasis on shoes and streets suggests that, like Homer’s and Joyce’s hero Ulysses, he has finished his odyssey and should be on his way home. The time has come for the king to exit and make way for the next generation.
Piccoli is so masterful in creating a role that in certain scenes Oliveira has him act without a face; even blotted out by shadows, his back to the camera, or simply offscreen, he’s still mightily expressive. Pic’s other treat is Malkovich in the role of a cagey Hollywood director, an ironic twist on his “Shadow of the Vampire” role, with a wink to his upcoming real-life film directing debut.
Paris is shot as a vast theater set by cinematographer Sabine Lancelin, gaudy, modern and banal by day, mysterious, empty and dangerous by night. Apart from the plays, Valerie Loiseleux’s editing is unusually nippy for an Oliveira film. An obvious continuity mistake in a bar scene will keep fans wondering whether it was done on purpose, and if so, why?