Moving Down the Highways of Life

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Review of 'I'm Going Home', director Manoel de Oliveira

I'm Going Home' is a French film by the little known but prolific Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira. Michel Piccoli's protagonist, Gilbert Valance, is an ageing and principled actor who meets tragedy one night after the show. Like many recent French films 'I'm Going Home' opens with the scene of a play, in this case Ionesco's 'Exit the King' in which Gilbert is the lead. The metaphor soon becomes clear. After the curtain falls he learns that his wife and daughter have been killed in a car accident. He is left alone with a small grandchild whom he tries to comfort and be comforted by. Gilbert meanders through his days and the Paris streets before going to the theatre. He becomes completely distracted by a beautiful new pair of shoes he has purchased and seems happy to discuss his shoes with his agent who enquires how he is dealing with the tragic and untimely deaths of his family. After persistent questioning he eventually retorts, simply, 'I live.'

Gilbert is an actor who wants parts to believe in. So when his agent offers him a role in an action packed, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll television drama about a middle aged man seduced by a young woman he is appalled. Thus enter John Malkovich, playing an American director making an adaptation of 'Ulysses'. Gilbert reluctantly accepts the part of Buck Mulligan, a part for which he is really too old. He struggles with the lines and the petty humiliation he suffers whilst rehearsing. There is a very moving scene where he is being made to look younger for the part--we see him staring vacantly at himself in the mirror as a wig of 'younger hair' is fitted and make-up applied. The despair of a broken man forced to compromise his integrity and dignity for a part he resents is palpable.

His desire to stay close to home, to his grandchild and the familiar slowly becomes clear. Suddenly on set he announces, 'Je rentre à la maison,' or 'I'm going home.' His detachment, numbness and desire to hold on to some 'normal life' reaches the viewer intensely. So intensely in fact that it leaves one hoping for some final emotional outburst in contrast to his almost unrealised loss. If a criticism can be made, then it is this failure; the distance from his suffering is never contrasted with more conventional expressions of human grief. I desperately wanted him to let go.

This is the story of ageing and loss, of a man's attempt to stay within a world he has inhabited and believed in for so long, and about his courage to face a different future.