At times, the strict dictates of formal filmmaking place movies in one of two camps: those with brains and those with hearts. I’m Going Home, the latest masterpiece by 92-year-old French director Manoel de Oliveira, not only retains its heart, but expands it until the film’s emotional power is almost too much to handle. De Oliveira seems not only to have read John Berger’s famous essay “On Looking,” but also to have taken it as his personal instruction manual for filmmaking. The result is a film essay of the most unusual type, that is, one with a distinctly emotional and human core.
The storyline, such as it is, serves as a vehicle for the gentle exploration of everyday life and, in turn, everyday death, in Paris: tiny café coffee cups, and elegant wingtip shoes, and satisfying newspapers, and the Eiffel Tower lit up as if by magical fairy-lights.
This is the Paris of Gilbert Valance (the magnificent Michel Piccoli), an aging actor who finds out in the first scene that his wife, daughter, and son-in-law have all been killed in a terrible accident. As he performs in Ionesco’s Exit the King, three men in dark business suits hover in the wings like modern day Fates. 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 “Some time later.”
This proves to be a sun-drenched day in Paris. We follow Gilbert as he sits in his favorite café, admires posters in a store window, buys a pair of chocolate-brown shoes. These are the film’s most moving scenes, documenting the myriad of pleasures found in the everyday and the simple, exquisite joy of looking with Gilbert. Each shot-ending moment 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 utter 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 behind 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 solitary means of understanding and communication; we can learn the world just by looking at it.
Looking is also the key to experiencing joy in I’m Going Home in terms 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. That is exactly how I’m Going Home functions; for example, a joke about Gilbert putting on film makeup begins with the humor of fussily applied makeup and brushes, moves to the humor of an ill-fitting wig, and culminates in the ultimate 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 happiness of visually appreciating the world. The looking process allows Gilbert, in the face of tremendous tragedy, to love Paris, companions, and life. We also learn these lessons. De Oliveira is acknowledging that we all endure tragedies, and looking, he suggests, is a perfectly good way, maybe the only way, to heal. According to him, looking may be the key to any form of happiness: humor, beauty, joy, healing.
Working again in threes, de Oliveira incorporates a three-tiered formal narrative. The film begins with a performance of Exit the King, then moves to everyday life, then to a performance of The Tempest, then back to everyday life, and culminates in the filming of Ulysses (directed by John Malkovich, in a wonderfully irritating performance), then, sort of, back to everyday life. I’m Going Home‘s formal structure, then, goes something like this: theater to life, theater to life, and, with an enigmatic merging of parallel narratives, theater crossed over into life (or is it the other way around?). In the end, de Oliveira blurs art and life into a living, breathing, and, above all, feeling object of the most everyday beauty. Profundity can come in many guises; in this case, it reveals itself so naturally in the unsentimental delight of an aged man in his new shoes.