My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud

1994, NR, 93 min. Directed by Gerard Mordillat. Starring Sami Frey, Marc Barbe, Julie Jezequel, Valerie Jeannet.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Dec. 13, 1996

Antonin Artaud, a crazed visionary who spilled his blood and guts into theatrical productions, poems, and drawings that expressed his yearning for art that liberated our souls like ancient shamanistic rituals, was one of the most electrifying cultural figures of this century. In terms of difficulty, making a boring movie about Artaud would have to rank right in there with producing a whimsical little romantic comedy on the life of Robert Johnson. But darned if French director-writer Gerard Mordillat hasn't done exactly that. My Life, adapted from dubiously accurate diaries by poet manqué and Artaud butt-kisser Jacques Prevel, is so drenched with ennui that at times you almost detect the sly wink of the parodist. Unfortunately, this chronicle of Artaud's last days, which saw him living as an outpatient from an nuthouse near Paris and battling addiction to prescription opiates, is about as amusing as the Black Death. The story revolves around Prevel's largely imagined artistic bonding with the dying, drug-addled Artaud. Prevel, a marginal poet whose chief talent is stringing along his pregnant wife and sexy bohemian mistress, daily delivers drugs and pages of his own mediocre verse to Artaud and actually receives some good writerly advice from the great man during his rare lucid spells. But it's clear that most of the carefully hedged praise Prevel receives is simply his payment for keeping those bottles of laudanum coming. Apart from these scenes of poetic shop talk, most of Mordillat's film consists of Prevel and his women listening as the hawk-faced Artaud raves incoherently. “An army of men is masturbating on me -- to bewitch me!” “Don't have a child… every time a child is born it drains blood from my heart.” It's a great credit to veteran French actor Sami Frey, who plays Artaud, that these absurd lines take on multiple levels of possible meaning as he delivers them. Even as silly as they seem (and Frey sometimes reads them with a subtle level of self-mockery), he also manages to convey some of the brilliantly stylized emotional fury Artaud brought to his Theatre of Cruelty two decades earlier. Fidgety, shifty-eyed Marc Barbe is less effective as Prevel, though much of his affectless presence can be traced to the fact that his character is such a zero. And that, as much as Mordillat's inability to convey sense or passion through his moody black-and-white images, is really the problem here. The characters and situations are just so godawful boring that not even… well, Antonin Artaud could do anything very compelling with them. Next time, Gerard, give me Artaud in his twenties, standing before a screen painted with Balinese magical symbols, shrieking his lungs out to an audience of rapt dadaists. Now that's art!

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