A reviewer for "The New York Times" called it "Remarkable! An ode to Paris and to life." Ebert and Roeper gave it two thumbs up. Reviewers for "L.A. Weekly" and "Village Voice" pronounced it one of the ten best films of the year. A reviewer for the "Chicago Reader" called it "a glorious film full of revelations!" And "The San Francisco Examiner" lauded it as the best film of the year.
So why wasn't I blown away by Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira's much-praised "I'm Going Home"?
This sort of thing eventually happens to every viewer (or reviewer). You hear the hype or read the critical praise, and then somehow the film doesn't quite measure up. Sometimes it's the result of overly heightened expectations, which, of course, is totally unfair to the film. But other times, you just have to wonder what everyone else is thinking. Or maybe you recall the "Seinfeld" episode where Elaine seems to be the only one who feels that "The English Patient" is a long, boring film, and you pumped your fists in the air and shouted, "Yes! Yes! Finally, someone who agrees with me." Or, maybe the director's style is just an acquired taste.
"I'm Going Home" is by no means long and boring, or as in need of a transfusion as "The English Patient"--though it does have the characteristic, sometimes painfully slow pace of character-driven dramas. The plot is relatively simple: a renowned classical theatrical actor in the twilight of his career learns at the end of a performance that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have been killed in a car accident. There's no hospital scene, no funerals, and precious little footage of his surviving grandson. There's no melodrama here. De Oliveira chose to focus entirely on the actor himself. Michel Piccoli, whose mannerisms and looks call to mind the American actor John Randolph, is nothing short of brilliant performing under what amounts to a non-stop spotlight as Gilbert Valence, an actor famous enough to be stopped on the streets of Paris and asked to sign autographs. There are no flashbacks, and so we can therefore only speculate, but the accident seems to have accelerated the actor's own decline, and this is what interests the 92-year-old director. Valence shuffles about in his Paris home, watches through the window as his caretaker packs his orphaned grandson off to school, unfolds the newspaper in precisely the same café seat at precisely the same time, yet continues to act on stage as if nothing had happened. It's what he does, who he is. He's the consummate pro, someone who turns down schlocky television roles because money doesn't matter as much as dignity, someone who takes pride in being able to deliver classic performances under any condition--though that's soon put to the test.
When an American director (John Malkovich) decides he wants Valence to play a major role in his stage production of James Joyce's "Ulysses," Valence finds it hard to refuse. But he finds it even harder to pull off the performance, especially since it's in English, not French. At the same time that friends are suggesting Valence take up with a younger woman to revive him, the aging actor finds himself in extensive make-up sessions aimed at trying to make him look young enough to play the part of Buck Mulligan believably. Inevitably, the day comes when, confused by the language, he can't remember a line. "I'm going home," he says, leaving the set, and as the grandson watches him ascend the stairs back at the house, we get the sense that he's gone home to his own symbolic death-one that's been impending since the moment he heard about the deaths of those closest to him. We could see it coming a mile away, and yet, like a "Columbo" episode, which revealed who dunnit at the beginning in order to subvert plot and draw attention to character, De Oliveira's film is all about the journey. The only real action, aside from the opening, is a mugging at the hands of a junkie with a contaminated syringe.
The cinematic decisions De Oliviera makes to tell Valence's story may interest viewers more than the story itself. The first thing you'll notice is the opening, an exceptionally long theatrical scene from Eugene Ionesco's "Exit the King." Aside from noting that Catherine Deneuve has a small part and the scene seems to go on forever (and we're not sure, at that point, what exactly we're supposed to get out of it), it might interest you more that for much of the scene Valence delivers his lines with his back to the camera. Piccoli is a household name in France. Could you picture an American actor doing that in an American film? Likewise, in a later scene, Valence meets at an outdoor café to talk with his agent. Almost the entire scene is shot showing only the mens' shoes! Valence had just splurged and bought a highly expensive pair (you can't take it with you!), and De Oliviera wanted to highlight personality and reinforce the theme through those shoes. That's more than a bit interesting-it's downright daring. So too with a scene from "Ulysses," where we hear the action but the camera is fixed only on the director's (Malkovich's)face throughout most of the scene. Or a scene where Valence rides along the streets of Paris and we see Paris through his eyes: statues, the millennial decorated Eiffel Tower, and other monuments of quasi-permanence. Even the three theatrical scenes which seem to go on forever-"Exit the King," Shakespeare's "The Tempest," and "Ulysses"-are daring. By devoting so MUCH time to theatrical performance, De Oliviera all but forces the viewer to confront the relationship between theater and life. Ultimately, though "I'm Going Home" is primarily a character study (the other characters have almost exaggeratedly minor roles), De Oliviera's adventures with the camera are what really bear watching, especially if the pacing strikes you as a bit slow, or the mortality theme seems too morose.
De Oliveira's film is presented in the original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio, which almost fills a standard television screen. And the picture quality is exceptional. If you've ever tried to take photos in Paris, it's hard to capture the romance and the atmosphere of the City of Lights when the weather is so often overcast. But De Oliviera and his camera crews manage to preserve the ambience of Paris and the hazy, watercolor hues that always seem to get lost in film translation. With character, not action, as the focus, the aspect ratio is also appropriate to De Oliviera's purpose.
"I'm Going Home" features 2-Channel Dolby Digital French with English subtitles and a Dolby Digital 2-Channel commentary track in English. Two-channel Dolby suits this film, which focuses closely on actor Gilbert Valence as he moves through his Paris leisure and work routines. Often, as the camera follows Valence, the ambient sounds of Paris fill the soundtrack and the sounds of traffic and everyday life move realistically across the front-speaker spread.
Aside from the trailer, there are two features, and both are worthwhile. The first is an interview with Manoel de Oliviera, with the camera fixed on the director as he talks about the impetus behind the film and his own identification (and Piccoli's identification) with Gilbert Valence. It's a fairly short but revealing interview. In the slow and mannered speech of his native Portuguese (with English subtitles), De Oliviera acts and sounds eerily like the actor of his film, and the actor that the actor plays, and the roles that the actor plays. It adds another layer to a many-layered construct. Did I say "construct?" It must be the effects of listening to the almost full-length commentary by Richard Peña, Program Director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Peña, who is also a professor of film studies at Columbia University, provides a commentary which sounds like a heavily researched academic paper, full of more than casual information and replete with frequent rhetorical mannerisms ("indeed," "in fact," "of course,"). But he accomplishes what a good commentary should: not only does he offer up a ton of background and filming information, he also sheds a little light on the shadows of the film and manages to convince viewers that De Oliviera is an acquired taste who should (and can) be appreciated for his contributions to film. A celebration of independent films is a celebration of alternate and multiple points of view, and with De Oliviera we get the unusual point of view of a man near the end of his own life. How many other 92-year-old directors are working today? The viewpoint of an older man or woman is as valid as any other viewpoint, and deserves to be heard, Peña reminds us. We get plenty of background on the director's life, including his 20-year hiatus from film following a disastrous critical response to his first pioneering work, and his gradual return to critically acclaimed filmmaking. "I'm Going Home," we learn, is based on an anecdote told him by an actor which seemed to suit De Oliviera's purpose and reflect his interests: meditations on sexual death, mental death, artistic death, and the relationship between death and the idea of ever having lived. Without Peña's commentary, many viewers would also remain clueless as to which recognizably famous scenes (Prospero's death scene from "The Tempest," for example) they were watching.
Oddly enough, this little elegiac film stays with you. Gilbert Valence is a man who's still got enough pizzazz to have girls in their twenties stop him on the street, who's still in demand as an actor, and who's still in good health. Yet, the deaths of others close to him shake his very foundation. In the end, "I'm Going Home" will have the same effect on people as any obituary that reminds us all how short and fragile are all of our lives.
The scenes showing Valence on-stage go on way too long, and he doesn't reach out enough to his grandson to make him seem truly sympathetic. Yet, while the film proceeds with a certain inevitability, it generates the kind of resonance that makes it stick with you days, even weeks later. No grand explosions, just a quiet little ticking that pulls at your ear when you're in the middle of your day.