“I’ve never done that stuff and I’ll not start now.”
I’m Going Home (origin French title Je rentre à la maison) is 93-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s second most recent film. In a film career spanning almost 70 years, de Oliveira seems to be becoming more prolific with age. He made two films in 2001 and one so far in 2002. De Oliveira’s films frequently appear at the Cannes Film Festival and I’m Going Home was his 2001 contribution, receiving considerable critical acclaim there. It also was a selection of the Toronto and Vancouver International Film Festivals the same year. Seville Pictures have now released the film on DVD in Canada.
Aging actor Gilbert Valence completes a performance on stage and is then informed of the death of his wife, daughter, and son-in-law in a car crash. Gilbert must struggle to come to grips with this tragedy while caring for his now-orphaned grandson, dealing with his persistent agent, and trying to continue with the acting career that has been his life for as long as he can remember.
One imagines that director Manoel de Oliveira is somewhat like the lead character of his film — contemptuous of what passes for popular entertainment and unwilling to compromise a classy career by making a film that will pay well but which he feels is beneath him. Certainly in I’m Going Home, he offers no solace to those who demand fast action, quick cutting, and a focus on the cult of youth as the mainstays of their films. Instead, we are given a methodically built-up picture of aging actor Gilbert Valence who somehow must deal with an intense personal tragedy. We sense that Gilbert is having difficulty in dealing with his sorrow, but the director doesn’t let us know for sure, often keeping us at a distance by using frequent long shots or physically separating Gilbert from us by glass windows. Gilbert doesn’t express his feelings to any extent and we only get a hint of the sadness he is feeling when he uncharacteristically responds with anger to his agent’s presentation of a television part that would be completely at odds with Gilbert’s classically-oriented career to date. This response reinforces the fact that Gilbert no longer seems interested in new challenges. And yet, he soon finds himself also offered a part in an English-language film of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” With only three days to prepare, he is somewhat hesitant but finally agrees. His performance is far from good as he struggles with missed lines and the need to speak the part in English, which is not his native language. The situation is a final test for Gilbert that will determine whether he has surmounted his personal loss or been so affected by it that any future other than a long slow decline is not possible. The choice that de Oliveira chooses for Gilbert is poignant indeed and probably more true-to-life than we might like to believe.
While the film tells a tale of undeniable power, it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that it’s a slight tale indeed — 45 minutes of material padded out to 90 minutes by scenes that go on too long (the segment of Ionesco’s play “Exit the King” at the film’s beginning) or by camera placement choices that seem to have little point other than to draw attention to themselves (the shot of Gilbert and his agent’s shoes as the men talk at a café). Even the segments that show Gilbert having a coffee at a café where he is a regular and involve another patron who likes to sit in the same seat that Gilbert frequents, seem more like padding than anything else even though they make an important, albeit belaboured, point and are mildly amusing.
One cannot quibble with the choice of Michel Piccoli to play the aging Gilbert. Piccoli has fashioned a lengthy and worthy film career of some 200 films over almost 60 years (his first film was Sortilèges in 1945) and is held in high regard in France. There, he has chosen to make most of his films, only venturing into more international film-making with occasional appearances in the likes of Is Paris Burning? (1966), Topaz (1969), and Atlantic City (1980). Piccoli is wonderfully natural as Gilbert showing both the character’s artistic capability in the segments of plays that the film includes as well as subtly conveying his struggle to deal with his personal loss. Gilbert is not one to show his emotions easily, but we know they’re there in the way Piccoli has the character watch sadly from his upstairs window as his grandson leaves for school or in the quiet pleasure he takes in a new pair of shoes. When Piccoli does allow Gilbert’s emotions to surface, it really adds impact to the scenes whether it’s his anger over the mediocre television film he’s offered or the sheer delight that results from playing with remote-controlled toy cars with his grandson.
Piccoli’s excellence is enhanced by comparison with a supporting cast that is competent at best. The best of them is Antoine Chappey who plays Gilbert’s agent, George, and is a frequently-seen player in French cinema and television of the past decade. In an apparent effort to raise the film’s profile, there are cameos by Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich. Neither enhance their filmographies by their rather self-conscious efforts here.
Seville’s DVD version of the film provides a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer that continues the company’s recent streak of fine-looking releases. The image is crisp and clear with natural-looking if somewhat subdued colours (presumably intended by the director, in line with the bitter-sweet nature of the story). Edge enhancement is minimal.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix in French with optional English subtitles. Dialogue is clear and the occasional musical background is bright and vibrant (although that’s perhaps more reflective of the sparing way it’s been used — which makes it stand out when it is — than anything unusual in the original recording).
Supplements are limited to a trailer gallery for Seville DVD releases including Kandahar, The Whole Wide World, Eat Man Drink Woman, and I’m Going Home.
I had mixed reactions to I’m Going Home. It’s undeniably an earnest effort by director Manoel de Oliveira and it contains a really fine performance by Michel Piccoli, but the story is mighty slight even for 90 minutes and Piccoli gets little support from his co-performers. One certainly can’t quibble with the DVD presentation from Seville, but I would suggest that this one rates no more than a rental.