Dillinger Is Dead
Michel Piccoli, Anita Pallenberg, Annie Giradot
DVD release date: 16 Mar 2010
Marco Ferreri’s 1969 psychodrama remains as confounding today as it was upon its initial release. A surreal study of the alienated man, a cold depiction of domestic violence, a fever dream signifying nothing and (why not?) everything, Ferreri’s very nearly plotless film was designed to keep viewers at a distance.
(Though I suppose I should warn you about impending spoilers, it’s probably worth knowing that there’s almost no way to review this sucker without dealing with last-act plot points. So, maybe don’t read this ‘till you’ve seen it? Or something?)
What little there is in the way of story goes something like this: a middle-aged man (Michel Piccoli) who designs gas masks for a living listens to a colleague as he reads from his diary about his theories regarding man’s alienation from his environment. He then goes home to find his gorgeous wife (Anita Pallenberg) complaining of a headache. She goes upstairs to bed, leaving him to the dinner she has prepared for him (but which has grown cold). He dumps it into the bin, and begins to cook himself a complicated meal.
While searching for ingredients he comes across an old revolver wrapped in a newspaper with a headline reading “Dillinger is Dead”. He takes apart and then methodically cleans the gun before painting it red with white polka dots. He watches a series of home movies, most of which involve holidays on a beach somewhere. He performs a succession of pantomimes of suicide. Throughout, his radio and television blare.
He then goes upstairs and seduces his maid (Annie Giradot). Finally, he goes into his bedroom, places a pillow over his sleeping wife’s face, and shoots her three times in the head with the colourful gun. He drives to the coast, dives into the ocean, is picked up by a passing fishing boat, and is hired as the chef. The boat is headed to Tahiti. Fin.
Soooooo, as you may be able to guess from the above, this is one weird little flick. It’s also among the starkest examinations of post-1968 angst ever put down on film. Shot in the months following the tumult of the French spring, and amid the calamity of the Soviet crackdown in Prague, Ferreri’s approach is clearly guided by a gathering disappointment over the prospect for meaningful, positive change. This is a profoundly depressing portrait of a man adrift, lost inside a reality he cannot humanly inhabit.
His wife is equally lost, floating through in a narcotic haze, sleeping her way through the picture. His maid, subservient to his desires, hasn’t any purchase on her life either, it would seem. The gun, with its possible associations with a supposedly authentic past and the killer-hero John Dillinger, seems, unlike the home movies and the cold dinner, to be something real and useful amid the waste.
Obviously, we spend much of the nearly dialogue-free runtime asking ourselves a couple of key questions. Why does he paint the gun? Is he making it his, asserting ownership over it? Or is he transforming it from artifact to Technicolor object of the present?
Why, above all, does he kill his wife? We see no motive – there is no reason even suggested – but the whole film is headed in this direction from the opening frame. He seems to have tender feelings for her in the brief scenes they share, and he does put distance between them when he kills her by putting a pillow over her face. Yet if it is her murder that represents his final escape from the bourgeois horror in which he feels so extravagantly trapped, we are left with a plainly evil and sickening answer to the question of freedom.
Rarely screened since the ‘70s, Ferreri’s masterpiece has been cleaned up for release by the Criterion Collection along with interview features and a worthy booklet. It should find an audience with film students and others interested in the late ‘60s, but will likely confound the average viewer. Indeed, this is likely part of its very purpose.
The underlying message of the film seems, to this viewer, to be that in an increasingly alienating environment, in a world in which our individuality is suspect, and our desire for some un-articulated freedom viewed as corrupt, even insane, we become trapped. As the television drones on, the radio blasts its palliatives, it is an artifact found wrapped in a piece of old media, the Depression-era newspaper, that has purpose. Is there a lesson here? Up to you.