Run time: 90 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 12th September 2001
Distributed by: Gémini Films
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 51 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Producer: Paulo Branco
Screenwriter: Manoel de Oliveira
What emerges first watching I'm Coming Home is de Oliveira's extraordinary and serene cinematic style. The story is that of a successful and respected Parisian actor named Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli), a 76 year-old, who, in the film's opening scenes, loses his wife and daughter in an auto crash. We then take up with him a few months later as he goes about the day-to-day business of tending his orphaned grandson Serge and maintaining the routine he's reestablished in his life. When an American director (John Malkovich) casts Valence as the much, much younger Buck Mulligan in a film adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses, the forced scrutiny of his age challenges Valence's emotional equilibrium and causes him to reevaluate his mortality and recent loss.
The assurance and seeming ease of de Oliveira's style recalls that of the later works of Luis Buñuel, a connection underlined by the presence of Piccoli, who appeared in that director's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. But de Oliveira's is a far less wicked sensibility (although his jokes can be presented just as dryly), and his sympathetic observation of Valence is respectful and never intrusive. Just the opposite: when Valence learns of the accident, the reaction we see is that of his fellow cast members from a production of Ionesco's Exit the King. Conversations, in I'm Coming Home, are just as likely to be seen as actually heard: they take place silently, shot through windows, for instance. De Oliveira will likewise record interactions while training his camera elsewhere, shyly fixing the frame on the feet of two speakers instead of their faces, or chronicling the process of the Ulysses shoot by focusing an unmoving camera on the director's face as he reacts to the action we don't see.
The world, for Valence, is a stage - two long passages in the film show the actor performing in Ionesco's play and also as Prospero in The Tempest - and de Oliveira is constantly creating proscenia through which he appears. He frames Valence in shop and café windows, before a bedroom window in his home where he contemplates a framed photo of his wife, in mirrors. De Oliveira's composition is marvelous, complex without any show of effort; his fixed camera waits patiently while action moves into the frame in the stage sequences, it fixes its lonely subject against a window beyond which the life of Paris teems, it isolates him from those around him through the use of compositional elements, frames within the frame.
These effects are created so quietly that their genius dawns on you almost without your conscious participation. In one scene, Valence and his grandson - the two living victims of the auto tragedy - play with remote-control toy cars, crashing them into one another. The camera dwells on the cars without comment. The scene cuts to an exterior view of their home at night; as a real car speeds past it, the lights in the windows go out.
And then back on. Because despite de Oliveira's frank assessment of his hero - the ways in which his pride verges on arrogance, the question of how he has or hasn't dealt with his loss - the message of I'm Going Home is essentially a hopeful one. That's not to say that it's sentimental, for it resolutely is not. Instead, the film takes a realistic look at the ways in which mortality plays into the conscious and subconscious plans of the living, and it suggests that even real despair, if appropriate, is a means of moving on.
Mention must be made of the performances, especially Piccoli's richly layered portrayal of Valence. He gives his actor real authority on the stage, proposing that this man's emotions find their best outlet there, and in his private life he exhibits a complexity of emotions that can be read just as deeply as the viewer cares to go. Catherine Deneuve makes an extended appearance as Valence's queen in the Ionesco play. Talk about authority; she stands backstage in her regal attire, arms akimbo, so much a living legend by now - not to mention such a presence - that a crown would be implied even if it weren't physically there. As the Ulysses director, Malkovich is wonderfully sly. In his initial interview with Valence and during the shooting of the film, he condescends perfectly, but without the undercurrent of malice he usually conveys. This fictive director reads as sham intellectual; given de Oliveira's real mastery of the form, it's the best joke in a film for the ages.
Aka Je rentre à la maison.