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Manoel de Oliveira
Luís Miguel Cintra,
The comfortable daily routines of aging Parisian actor Gilbert Valence, 76, are suddenly shaken when he learns that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have been killed in a car crash. Having to take care of his now-orphaned grandson, he struggles to go on with his lifelong acting career like he's used to. But the roles he is offered -- a flashy TV show and a hectic last-minute replacement in an English-language film of Joyce's Ulysses -- finally convince him that it's time to retire. Written by
This film by 92-year-old Portuguese film director Manoel De Oliveira is an 86-minute close observation of an elderly actor who seems to be mainly a stage actor. The film opens with a 15-minute scene from Ionesco's "Le roi meurt," in which the actor (Michel Piccoli) goes through the never-say-die speech of the 280-year-old king. After the performance, he is greeted backstage with the news that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have been killed in a car accident. The rest of the film follows him in his everyday routines, into another performance (this time in Shakespeare's "The Tempest"), and then on to a film of James Joyce's "Ulysses." In between we watch him buy shoes, quarrel with his agent, play with his orphaned grandson, and drink espresso at his favorite cafe.
De Oliveira has a habit of filming performances at odd levels. For example, in "Le roi meurt," Piccoli has his back to the camera the entire time. During a quarrel with his agent, only Piccoli's feet in his new shoes are shown. He bashes the heels against the pavement when he's mad, rocks them back and forth when he's pleased--it's all there. When he is playing Buck Mulligan in "Ulysses" we only hear his performance, and gauge it by the reactions on the face of the film director (John Malkovich). The lengths De Oliveira goes to to confound his actors' egos and the audience's expectations are inventive and a bit peculiar.
I sensed that this film was more about De Oliveira than about the characters in the story. There isn't much dialog and not much character development. The theme of the king who will not die, who is egomaniacal beyond reason, perhaps is De Oliveira talking to himself. He makes movies into his 90s because it is his habit. He should be dead by now, but he's not, and because of that he has watched everyone he loves die before him. The possibility of trying to start a new life with a young starlet that is offered to Piccoli must also have happened to De Oliveira. He won't make himself ridiculous that way. "I'm not Casals," the actor says when told of the musician's marriage at the age of 82 to a teenager. I can hear our director saying that, too.
What he wants to do is stop working, rest, and mourn his losses. This is, I feel, a personal film and all the more moving for it.
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