Dealing with the synopsis could not be simpler. A renowned, aging actor Gilbert Valance (Michel Piccoli) finds himself the charge to his grandson Serge (Jean Koeltgen) when his wife, son and daughter-in-law are killed in an automobile accident. He continues with the stage and film work, tired, stubborn as to what work he will take and refuse outright, but eventually succumbing to the delayed shock. The emotional strain, wear and tear, is so long withheld that it becomes forgotten that it has not hit him or has been assumed long bypassed off-screen. His personal and emotional strength has sustained him longer than is normal. Then again, he could have been through it without our witness. There is unaccounted for time for his grieving to have struck and been overcome for him to have settled into what he has referred to, in his own coinage, as his "solitudinaire." We assume that this is the case; the eventual arrival of the shock becomes an overdue twist. The time before having been adequately filled in the lead up to the gentle snap, the viewer is left deceived not by the cleverness of the format but by the dullness of it.
Previous reviews have been brief and half occupied with the plot while the publicity has focused on sweet images of the elderly gentleman and the small boy, between them giving a terribly false impression of the content of the film, that of a dear relationship in the face of tragedy, hearkening back to earlier, weepy emotion-fests. A lot is expected of it and this too backfires on the film. The boy has little screen time, appearing first at 52 minutes for one minute, then at 73 minutes for another, and finally at the close for seconds only.
Giving it to the film renter at its mathematical lowest common denominator the truth is a little sharp and unattractive, but a warning must be forthcoming. The starting point should be that this is an 86-minute film of which the first 15 minutes are a stage performance as carriers of the bad news await silently off-stage for the close of The King Is Dead. In the middle of the film we get five minutes of The Tempest while later we have four full minutes of nothing more than make-up and wig being applied for a feature film. True the stage plays have some small relevance to his situation as man of advancing age and tragic circumstance but nothing like 19 minutes worth qualifies for excusing the film from poking and stoking a plot. This leaves 62 minutes of which four minutes focus on his new brogues. A conversation, an intelligent and entertaining one, is heard conducted above the table, but it is a rude removal from a great face and the focus is pointless. Just as when the camera trains on the camera-crew as Piccoli alternately impresses his voice upon and stumbles his pronunciation of the English language movie adaptation of Joyce's Ulysses, it is a deliberate numbing of selective senses in preparation for the twist close.
On the strength of the presence of the stage plays and in the direct adaptation of Joyce for the movie-shoot-within-a-movie, the script credit in the end should go five ways and that these lengthy extracts and silences were filler to save on the hard work of a full, original screenplay, becoming material decided and set that can be passed over to a second unit director. It is felt that the nonagenarian director excused himself from going to the efforts of making a feature film yet wanted the merits of one theatrically and critically.
Visually it is lost and aimless, as one might be in grief, but there are other aspects to grief, more passionate and gruelling which are as rarely visited or felt for which there was running time. The greatest crimes that a film can commit are not to depress you or shock you, but to bore you or make you feel stupid, and sitting through a film struggling to find interest in it can make you feel as stupid as sitting through some infantile hi-concept nonsense. In a text interview with Jacques Parsi (the French consultant earning himself the aforementioned script credit) that also accompanies the disc the relaxed elderly gentleman bemoans the lack of 'decorum', the rush and the depeche that most now chose to live and with which "nothing shocks and anything goes." De Oliveira has decided that the best way to stun is to surprise and scare them with a reduction of pace, a slowing down that makes for uncomfortable viewing. He succeeds, but in his success he has failed on the expectations, those of an escape or of an emotional release, of the demanding world cinema filmgoer.
DVD extras include filmed and text interviews, trailer, director's statement, filmographies for De Oliviera and Piccoli.