Tragedy and Pleasure
In an interview on the DVD release of I’m Going Home, 92-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira explains that the phrase “I’m going home to get some rest,” uttered at the end of the film, is a simple one. Home, he elaborates, is a private place, “where one isolates oneself… where one can be free with oneself.” The privacy of home to de Oliveira, though, is larger and more profound than its physical environs.
Indeed, our rooms and homes are substitutes for the mother’s womb—“the only place where a human being is created in peace.” It is the tragedy of our times, de Oliveira explains, that our entire civilization “longs to go home to peace.” Yet our “reason is out of order. It doesn’t know what to do. And what’s worse—it can’t find its way home.” With this rumination, the title I’m Going Home takes on wider significance: this film is not just about one man but about all men, and women. It’s a grand examination of the human condition as seen through the eyes of Gilbert Valance, the lead character and substitute for both de Oliveira and for humanity in general. And the search for “home” or even “peace” here is the tragedy of human existence, the problem for which there is no solution.
This is a fitting subject for such an acclaimed director with a long history of successes. After a long and distinguished career, de Oliveira has this film as a crowning achievement, a testament to his perception of the tragedies, absurdities, comedies, and delights of existence. Never widely released in U.S. theaters, I’m Going Home is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. While the no-frills DVD offers little in the way of special features (and little in the way of a thoughtful transfer to DVD—some of the colors are washed-out and muddy), the above interview with de Oliveira provides many insights into his conception of the film and is a useful resource for understanding the film. It’s a meditation on life amidst tragedy that, in the end, explains that life goes on in the face of sadness because life is entirely tragic. But even though none of us will ever find our way home, we can find solace and pleasures along the way.
I’m Going Home explores the ageless, ceaseless, and fruitless desire to find a place of peace, through the eyes of one man, the aging actor Gilbert Valance (the magnificent Michel Piccoli). As he performs in Ionesco’s Exit the King in the film’s first scene, three men in dark business suits hover in the wings like modern day Fates to tell him that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have all been killed in a terrible accident. Once they deliver their sad news (de Oliveira shows us not Gilbert’s reaction, but the worried faces of his costars in the play), the film cuts, obliquely, to “Sometime later.”
This proves to be a sun-drenched day in Paris. We follow Gilbert as he sits in his favorite cafe, admires posters in a store window, buys a pair of chocolate-brown shoes. As it turns out, the film is not just concerned with existential despair, but also with how one may find peace in small events, objects, and people; they are miniature oases in the midst of despair. These are the film’s most moving scenes, documenting the myriad pleasures found in the everyday and the simple, exquisite joy of looking at the world along with Gilbert. The end of each shot is held for a few extra beats, and each object is photographed with all the care (though none of the surrealism) of a Tarkovsky film. Through the simplicity of a long, still shot, a poster in a shop window becomes a priceless work of art. Normal items, when gazed upon for long periods, begin to bear tremendous weight and importance. Life is so precious, de Oliveira virtually whispers, that no small part of it, not even shop windows, must be taken for granted.
Such lovely visuals are underlined by the filmmaker’s attention to sound. Gilbert’s conversation with the poster shop’s owner is shot from outside the store window; we don’t hear the conversation, only the rushing of cars. The effect is disorienting but also liberating: we are forced to understand their exchange through body language and facial expressions, even through what’s happening around them.
De Oliveira has us look where we would typically listen, thereby calling our attention to details that we usually skip. Like Gilbert, we are here educated in how looking can be a means of understanding and communication; we can learn the world just by looking at it.
Looking is also a key to experiencing joy in I’m Going Home‘s sense of comedy. The film’s humor is frequently visual, recalling James Agee’s definitive discussion of silent comedy. Agee writes that silent comedies are profoundly funny partially because they build up jokes visually and on three levels: from funny to funnier to funniest. This is exactly how I’m Going Home functions. A slightly cringe-inducing joke about Gilbert putting on stage makeup—and looking increasingly ridiculous—begins with the humor of fussily applied makeup, moves to the humor of an ill-fitting wig, and culminates in the indignity of a fake mustache. All gags are understood mostly through Gilbert’s facial expression; there is minimal dialogue. Yet the build-up and pay-off are all the more amusing because of the stringent focus on visual humor.
So, joy, humor, and even healing stem from the thrill of visually appreciating the world. The looking process allows Gilbert, in the face of tremendous tragedy—the loss of his family and the overarching human tragedy of the hopeless search for a place of peace—to love Paris, his companions, and life. De Oliveira acknowledges that we all endure tragedies, and looking at the world around us, he suggests, is a perfectly good way, maybe the only way, to heal.