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European art movies don't get any more in-your-face than Marco Ferreri's Dillinger is Dead, an experimental brain-stretcher that carries a big reputation in the upper circles of film aesthetes. The under-publicized Ferreri made challenging and occasionally revolting films, as with his later gross-out classic The Grand Bouffe. In that culinary epic a small group of male friends choose to kill themselves by overindulging in sex and fine cuisine. A Milanese who began his film career in Franco's Spain, Ferreri described himself as a maker of anarchic films, but asserted that "The shock I show is no bigger than the shock we see in daily living."
There are plenty of politically inclined, abstract Italian and French art efforts from the 60s and early 70s that have dated very badly. Dillinger is Dead is a much more exacting and disciplined film, skillfully made and carefully judged throughout. For a movie where almost nothing happens, there's not a boring minute in it.
The film is a first-person narrative played out almost completely in real time. Armament designer Glauco (Michel Piccoli of Contempt and Danger: Diabolik) observes a lab test of one of his gas masks, tolerates a co-worker's recital of a paper he's writing on modern alienation, and heads right home to his cozy, well appointed apartment. Glauco stops in to see his beautiful wife Ginette (Anita Pallenberg). She barely says hi, and takes a sleeping pill. Not content with the dinner left for him, Glauco pulls out a cookbook and makes himself something special. While he cooks, he putters about the kitchen, greeting Sabine, the maid (Annie Girardot). He then comes across an old gun wrapped in newspapers reporting the death of John Dillinger, the famous gangster. Glauco cleans the gun with vegetable oil and reassembles it. He watches home movies of a bullfight and vacations with Ginette and an unidentified woman (Carla Petrillo), paints the gun red with white polka dots and continues to play around the house like a little boy. After visiting Sabine for some late night "games", Glauco digs up some bullets for the gun...
Most of Dillinger is Dead involves watching Glaudo rummage around his apartment, idly looking for things to occupy his mind. Other than the speech by Glauco's co-worker, the film has almost no dialogue. Glauco remains interesting mainly because of the fascinating, eminently "watchable" Michel Piccoli, who simply behaves with no particular goal in mind, like a small boy left home alone. He putters with his drafting table and amuses himself by acting along with his home movies, waving his arms, "swimming" in the ocean and grabbing at the images of women bathing.
Glauco's co-worker claims that we now relate to objects and images, not each other. Director Ferreri's aim is simply observe alienation in a "normal" setting. Glauco doesn't really relate to the women in his life but becomes enthused over food, toys, and second-hand sensual experiences. The women also direct their erotic urges in onanistic directions. Sabine dances for a poster of a pop singer on her wall, and Ginette passionately kisses a goldfish bowl. Glauco's interaction with the projected images and his mock tormenting of the sleeping Ginette with a toy snake, seem a nod to an earlier cinematic madman, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom.
The editing style keeps us on edge. When Glauco discovers the gun Ferreri launches a B&W montage of vintage crime scene newsreel footage and images of John Dillinger, and we naturally wonder how it will all tie together. Ferreri is too cagey to use direct symbols yet the structure encourages us to look for meanings everywhere, especially when graphic images fill the screen. At one point a cutaway to Glauco shows him painted as a clown, for instance. It just happens, and it's done so simply that it doesn't come off as pretentious. Just about the only conventional narrative rule that Marco Ferreri obeys is the foreshadowed weapon syndrome -- the moment Glauco begins to toy with the old pistol, we know a violent act is in the offing. What happens with the gun is also the film's only dated moment. We've become so accustomed to violence of every stripe and attitude that a casual slaying that might have been devastating in 1969 is now a matter of course. Yet Ferreri has so lulled us into Glauco's banal activities that the conclusion is still a shock.
The color cinematography by Mario Vulpiani is beautiful and technically adept. When Glauco watches his home movies, the re-photographed images on his walls are brilliant and clear. Glauco plays with his screening by projecting into a corner of the room and then onto a three-piece folding partition (instant mini- Cinerama!). I wouldn't be surprised if both surfaces were sprayed with reflective screen material.
Criterion's DVD of the mysterious Dillinger is Dead is the expected polished presentation, in this case made more attractive by a colorful, beautifully preserved transfer element. The excellent audio mix for Glauco's interminable fiddling with toys and cooking utensils intensifies the we-are-there experience, as does the use of "random" music cues heard on radios, etc..
The disc extras consist of filmed interviews with critics and collaborators that praise and analyze Marco Ferreri's original filmic approach. A new piece with critic Adriano Aprá (who has a tiny role in the film) goes into historical detail, while excerpts from a round-table discussion by fellow committed directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Francesco Rosi try to define the essence of a director they clearly admire and respect. Rosi makes the amusing observation that Ferreri's odd visions are always anchored in ordinary experience. Nobody ever seems to eat anything in a Michelangelo Antonioni film, but in Ferreri everybody eats.
Snippets of interviews with Ferreri reveal a man with a magnetic personality, who shows not the slightest confusion or ambivalence toward his own work. His comments offer none of the usual "genius director" evasions. We too are sufficiently impressed to conclude that the director is the real article, a unique cinema anarchist.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dillinger is Dead rates:
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