Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dillinger is Dead

“Stay close to your inner self. You will benefit in many ways.”

I spend a lot of time at the Hong Kong restaurant, usually after watching the latest Cinema 100 offering. One of my hobbies is collecting fortunes and pinning them up by my desk at work. I like to keep my favorites especially close. They can be oddly comforting. They can also prove inspirational in unexpected ways.

That fortune about staying true to my inner self has long been my favorite and I thought about it while watching Dillinger is Dead, one of the latest buried treasures unearthed by the Criterion Collection which specializes in releasing great and often overlooked marvels of world cinema. “Dillinger” hasn’t been available on home video, ever, until now.

It’s a peculiar film. It begins with Glauco (Michel Piccoli) at work. He’s a gas mask designer and he’s observing a test subject sealed in a chamber filled with deadly gas. An onlooker ponders the parallels between the test subject and modern man who must wear a mask in order to survive the modern world. He must live outwardly in ways that society demands so thoroughly and so constantly that he becomes defined solely by this mask. He loses sight of his inner self and becomes a “one-dimensional man.”

It’s a quick and succinct setup. Then Glauco drives home and enters his flat where he will remain for most of the film, a flat that he shares with his doped up trophy wife (Anita Pallenberg) and their maid.

What happens over the course of the ensuing night can be written on a cocktail napkin. He feeds his wife some sleeping pills at her beckoning. He looks at the dinner left for him on the table and stashes it away in the fridge disgustedly. He pulls out a cookbook, throws on an apron, and sets to work preparing something tastier.

Rummaging in the pantry, he finds a gun wrapped in newspaper clippings about John Dillinger. He carefully disassembles the gun, meticulously cleans each part, reassembles it, paints it bright red with white polka dots, loads it, fantasizes blowing his brains out, and then, without a hint of emotion, shoots his sleeping wife in the head through a carefully arranged stack of pillows.

This is existential black comedy at its most absurdly detached. Piccoli reminded me of Elliott Gould’s mumbling Philip Marlowe, ambling about in search of food for his finicky cat, in Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Only Piccoli sustains this for the entire film as if wandering through a fog toward a distant moment of clarity, finally lowering his mask and re-discovering his true self by pulling a trigger.

He takes a break in his cooking and gun cleaning to seduce the maid and settles in to enjoy his meal while watching home movies projected on the living room wall. It’s a movie that is defiantly not about what happens. It is rather about how what happens happens. The seduction scene is odd and emotionless and, yet, strangely sensual as Glauco drizzles honey down the maid’s back and licks it from his finger.

And the home movie sequence is a candidate for my favorite such scene ever, topping even the home movie interlude in Paris, Texas. Glauco projects footage of a bullfight with him and his wife looking on from the stands followed by footage of them on vacation at a beach and at an amusement park. In each case, he approaches the wall and tries to touch the images, tries to become one with them. It’s cinema at it most beautiful and most enigmatic.

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