Dillinger Is Dead (Criterion)
Italian auteur Marco Ferreri’s films profile a modern consumer culture that is not simply empty but diseased, deadening emotions and driving people (specifically men) to acts of excess. The epitome is La Grande Bouffe, his grotesque 1973 men so bored life they decide to end it all in one final orgy, a food-and-sex blow-out, but you can find the seeds of that in the 1969 Dillinger in Dead, recently restored and rereleased in a revival run and now on DVD from Criterion.
It’s not a gangster film but an eerie character study of an industrial engineer (Michel Piccoli) over a long night where boredom and ennui and alienation (he’s in the middle of designing a gas mask) take their toll. Set almost entirely within the walls of a cluttered modern apartment filled with cultural detritus, Piccoli’s character plays like a spirited kid in a life-size toy box while his gorgeous but emotionally disconnected wife (Anita Pallenberg) medicates herself to sleep. He watches (and then interacts with) home movies, cooks up a snack, grabs a quickie with the maid (Annie Girardot), but the toy that fascinates him most is a handgun (which he cleans in olive oil) that may have belonged to Dillinger (or is simply wrapped up in the gangster’s mystic, which becomes both as his tool of liberation and of his ultimate act of arrogance and human contempt.
Piccoli does it all with a sly little smile, like he’s up to something and enjoying his little insomniac night in, but ends the night with a vicious act of violence performed with cool emotional disconnection. It was a radical political statement in its day but his whole being is mired in an ugly sexist sense of superiority, where women are somehow less human than he is, merely more objects for him to play with and discard. And while Ferreri may have intended that to be merely another symptom of his cultural disease, his identification with the engineer, and Piccoli’s childlike attitude through the long (and frankly dull) evening of nocturnal play, give his actions an approval that rubs me wrong. It’s at times fascinating, a skewed commentary on consumerism and self-medicated existence, but his chauvinist entitlement leaves an ugly stain on the film that Ferreri’s subsequent films don’t wash off.
Features substantial new video interviews with actor Michel Piccoli and Italian film historian Adriano Aprà (who also has a cameo in the film) and excerpts from a 1997 Cannes roundtable with filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Francesco Rosi (among others) paying tribute to Ferreri, who passed away in 1997, plus a booklet with an essay and excerpts of printed Ferreri interviews.
On DVD from Criterion on Tuesday, March 16.