Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who is in his early 90s and whose filmmaking career goes back to the early ’30s, has become a late-blooming prodigy of the avant-garde, spending the last three decades refining a style which, though uniquely his own, is cut from the same High Modernist cloth as was the work of Bresson and Antonioni and the contemporary director he most resembles, in tone if not topic, Abbas Kiarostami.
De Oliveira’s narrative strategy relies heavily on indirectness, and when he says of his latest film that it’s “almost a nonstory,” he’s to be taken literally. Although it deals with a subject that would seem to have a strong, intrinsic emotional content — the final days of an actor who has suffered a devastating late-in-life tragedy — the overall mood is less sorrowful than matter of fact and spiked with a very dry sense of humor. It’s a difficult film in the sense that it demands a great deal of patience on the part of the viewer, but it’s also one that has a strong afterglow, with some of its more oblique passages taking a while to sink in.
It’s also a difficult film to describe, since so much of its effectiveness arises from de Oliveira’s insinuating pictorial sense. As with trying to describe a good poem, the work’s impact is insufficiently conveyed by one’s attempt to paraphrase its intentions. Suffice it to say that it’s challenging, and de Oliveira flings down the gauntlet at the very start.
The movie opens with a longish sequence showing the last part of a performance of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King. It’s not a play that most English-speaking viewers will be familiar with, even those with a passing awareness of Ionesco. And ones struggle to grasp just what the play is trying to convey — it seems to be about a monarch about to die and sinking into dementia — isn’t helped by the fact that the man playing the king gives much of his performance with his back to the camera. So we’re off to a puzzling start.
We soon learn that this man is Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli), a renowned septuagenarian stage actor. After the conclusion of the Ionesco play, he’s informed that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in a car accident, leaving behind his 6-year-old grandson, Serge. But instead of showing us his reaction to this, the film jumps ahead to “some time later” when Valence is back onstage, this time in the much more familiar King Lear. Valence is apparently at that age when he’s cornered the market on portraying mad kings.
Finally we begin to get to know Valence, a man who, like the characters he has been shown portraying, is near the end of his life — minus, for the moment, the accompanying senility. We watch him as he plays with his grandson, roams through Paris, window shops and buys a pair of shoes, reads his newspaper in his favorite café (a scene which at first seems pleasantly pointless, but turns out to be the start of a running gag), and is mugged but unharmed by a junkie brandishing a syringe. He seems affable if slightly withdrawn, not visibly touched by his tragedy, taking comfort in his life’s routine.
After refusing to accept a role in a cheesy TV series, he agrees to work with an American director (John Malkovich) who’s filming a version of Joyce’s Ulysses and, rather improbably, wants Valence to play the role of Buck Mulligan. It seems like quite a stretch for the aging Frenchman to play a young Irishman and also like a bit of trick casting on the American director’s part, having chosen Valence on the basis of his prestige rather than his suitability. It’s also a stretch that leads to the film’s final crisis, precipitated by an utterance of the film’s title, which signals Valence’s final departure from reality.
That’s the outline of de Oliveira’s “almost nonstory,” a collection of events that separately seem nearly insignificant but which, when gathered together, become an original approach to the old subject of how someone lives in the shadow of approaching death. Without fanfare or manipulation and with a restraint bordering on perversity, de Oliveira captures what the mood of final days must often be — unsatisfying to witness, but moving in retrospect.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].