Final Curtain

Aging French actor clings to his routine; viewers may not be so stoic.


directed by Manoel de Oliveira

runs Nov. 22-Dec. 3 at Grand Illusion

IT’S SO EASY to be life affirming on film: frolicsome puppies, young lovers, swelling music, glorious sunrises, Julie Andrews bursting into song. Death is another matter—and a rarity for that reason in Hollywood. Sure, you’ve got dreck like Dying Young, where pathos is wrung from incongruity (youngsters about to be separated by death just when they find love!), but leave it to 94-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, working in France, to confront the subject head-on. I’m Going Home is, properly speaking, about Elisabeth Kbler-Ross’ fifth and final stage of death: acceptance. Yet its thespian protagonist, Gilbert (Michel Piccoli), has got a long way to go toward that peaceful resignation. His journey isn’t eventful (in fact it’s often downright dull), but Home makes moderately engrossing drama out of the same dreary path we must all ultimately tread.

Gilbert first appears onstage in an Ionesco production (with Catherine Deneuve in a small cameo), after which he learns of the car accident that’s wiped out his entire family—save for a cute little grandson. Flash forward several months, and the two are living in the same comfortable Parisian home. Gilbert clearly loves the boy, but he’s more attached to his daily window shopping, people watching, and espresso drinking in his favorite cafe. (The sole laugh in Home comes from his unwitting rivalry with another patron for the cafe’s best seat.)

Tellingly, Gilbert isn’t heard speaking offstage for the first 15 minutes of the movie. His voice and heart are apparently reserved for the stage, and de Oliveira lets his stage roles do the talking for him—first as a dying monarch in Exit the King, then as Prospero in The Tempest. We get the idea: Gilbert’s only truly alive when acting, but he doesn’t grasp the mortal significance of his roles.

His agent tries to rouse Gilbert from his passivity with an English-language part in a movie directed by an American (John Malkovich, whispering and exasperated). Their collaboration is painful to watch; the old dog won’t—or can’t—learn new tricks. He just wants to rest on his well-earned laurels. The 77-year-old Piccoli doesn’t soften his character’s weary obstinacy. A European screen icon since Contempt, his sagging masculinity is a bit of a shock—you keep rooting for him to perk up, then sadly realize that impossibility. It’s like watching, say, Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, only the pond is no longer golden anymore.