- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

In our first glimpse of "I'm Going Home," Gilbert Valence, a gentle, old, debonair French actor played with brilliant understatement by Michel Piccoli, is portraying King Berenger, the subject of the Eugene Ionesco play "Exit the King."

Berenger, a dying, deluded tyrant, desperately seeks to cheat death and return to the open-endedness of infancy.

After Valence takes his final bow, he is confronted off-stage with an all-too-real danse macabre: His wife, daughter and son-in-law have all been killed in a car accident.

"I'm Going Home," a sluggish but rewarding movie, doesn't plumb Valence's emotional depths; there are no tears, no reminiscence, no splashy displays of pain. Rather, it boldly and effectively attempts to depict the silent superficiality of grief: the seemingly uninteresting period after a survivor has "moved on."

The aging Valence envelopes himself in one of the film's major locales, Paris itself: its boulevards, shops and cafes its vivacious everydayness.

Solitude is solace, he tells his agent, George (Antoine Chappey), who sleazily and callously suggests to Valence that he might do well to explore the physical comforts of younger women.

Indignant, Valence insists that what is left of his life is enough: namely, his career and grandson Serge (Jean Koeltgen).

He does, however, welcome occasional interruptions from autograph seekers, shopkeepers, waiters smiling strangers who remind him of the normality that was.

Valence's lonely antidote soon proves futile, though. The splendor of daytime Paris, a supposedly "civilized city," turns ugly in a dark alley, where Valence is mugged at the point of a contaminated syringe.

Performing a scene from William Shakespeare's "The Tempest," Valence wraps himself in Prospero's existential grief:

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd. Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled. Be not disturb'd with my infirmity."

Some may wonder why Mr. Oliveira dwells so long on Valence's theater performances. They are remarkable as stand-alone pieces, but the case could be made that they are a distraction.

Mr. Piccoli, however, infuses them with added pathos to show his character burying grief in a fuzzy, consoling pretend world, a world Valence peculiarly extends into his daily life.

He seems happiest when window shopping and buying handsome new brogues, sipping coffee at his favorite bistro, watching his grandson leave each morning for school anything but confronting his loss and his own mortality.

Valence slowly comes to terms with his grim reality after the dignity of his work, his last redoubt, is compromised.

After beating back the money-grubbing entreaties of his agent, who wanted Valence to accept a part in a low-brow action series, he reluctantly agrees to play Buck Mulligan in a movie version of James Joyce's "Ulysses."

Valence is far too old for the part, and to make matters even more absurd, it has to be delivered in English. Aesthetically demeaned by makeup artists, a ridiculous-looking Valence essays the role of the youngish Buck.

The lines he does not flub are unintelligible. Indeed, the only indication that he is reading dialogue from "Ulysses" is when he utters the word "Kinch," Stephen Dedalus' nickname in the Joyce masterpiece.

John Malkovich is at his creepy best playing John Crawford, the smarmy and unctuous director of "Ulysses," who half-tolerantly coaches Valence through his lines.

Crawford's condescension is the last straw for Valence.

"I'm going home," he says, leaving the set, at once with resignation and determination. In the end, Valence is no Berenger; he willingly and nobly accepts his imminent decline.

He goes home simply "to rest," he announces to round his little life with a sleep.


***

TITLE: "I'm Going Home" (French with English subtitles)

RATING: NR (Mild sexual suggestiveness)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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