'My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud' (NR)

Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Oct. 13, 1995

About halfway through "My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud," French director Gerard Mordillat's incandescent evocation of the last days of the infamous actor, poet, theorist and madman, the protagonist approaches the pregnant wife of his friend Jacques and offers a rather peculiar piece of advice.

"Don't have your baby, Madame Prevel," the wild-eyed genius growls. "Every time a child is born, it drains blood from my body."

The setting is Paris in May of 1946 and, for Artaud (Sami Frey, in an astonishing performance), conspiracy lurks around every corner. Just out of prison, the 50-year-old poet feels spied on, hounded, decried, everywhere he goes. His brain is on fire and demons tear at the back of his eyes. Hundreds of people are bewitching him, he says, trying to destroy him and divert him from his work.

When he first meets Jacques Prevel (Marc Barbe), an aspiring poet who assumes the role of Boswell to this avant-garde Dr. Johnson, Artaud reads the desperate ambition in the young man's eyes and immediately begins to play him for a chump. "All the opium in Paris must be put at my disposal," he tells Prevel before sending him off on the first of many trips to procure drugs for his mentor.

In fact, massive doses of laudanum and opium are about all that sustain Artaud in his psychic agony, and Mordillat does an extraordinary job of capturing the drug-sick state of agitation and paranoia in which the artist exists. Frey plays Artaud as a sort of Iggy Pop of the Left Bank; one look at him and you're instantly convinced that he's wandered way around the bend. For his part, Prevel can't determine if the man is insane or just hyper-lucid and so cut off by his brilliance that his world is impenetrable. That's the way Artaud likes it.

In exchange for Prevel's work as a gofer, this champion manipulator critiques his poetry, in one breath encouraging him and praising the pangs of enormous suffering he senses in them, while tearing him down for their conventionality in another. Artaud toys shamelessly with his helpmate and supporter, teasing him the way a beautiful woman might tease a love-struck boy. For example, he tells Prevel that he needs to abandon his lingering bourgeois tendencies and rebel for real. Becoming a great poet isn't merely a matter of talent, he tells Prevel; it's an undertaking that requires great sacrifice and will. In truth, though, Artaud is secretly waging war against Prevel's wife (Valerie Jeannet), who wants her husband to dump the freeloader onto the street.

In bringing this sacred monster to life, Frey gives one of the most blessedly deranged performances in movie history. Nothing that this veteran French actor achieves here is timid or run-of-the-mill. With his wild mane of black hair and his suits hanging off his bones like the clothes on a scarecrow, Frey achieves the same sort of wacko inspiration that Marlon Brando has brought to his more recent roles. The performance is thoroughly nuts, but exhilarating. In one scene, Frey delivers his lines without once looking up from his lap; in another, he recites a poem while poking the top of his head with a knife.

At times, Frey's work here is so outrageous that it verges on camp; still the performance has power and weight. In the movie's most stirring sequence, Frey portrays Artaud as he systematically breaks down a beautiful young actress chosen to read his poems. He incessantly screams into her face, choking her and pounding a hammer rhythmically into a wooden stump until she achieves the appropriate level of rage and frustration.

It's a brutal lesson, and in perfect keeping with Artaud's extreme methods. Observing the moment through a window, Prevel understands for the first time what Artaud demands of himself and others—a complete sacrifice of self to art. Unfortunately, Barbe plays Prevel's reactions too close to the vest, and it's not clear if he's shocked by what he sees, or frightened, or titillated.

What we do learn, surprisingly, is that there is a method to Artaud's madness. He may be a sponger and a loon, but Mordillat and his writing partner Jerome Prieur also present him as the real thing, a true artist. As Artaud makes his rounds through the Parisian lower depths, looking for dope and expounding on everything from his own abysmal suffering to the imagined conspiracies of his enemies to his all-or-nothing philosophies on art, Mordillat does a masterly job of evoking the lethargic dissolution, experimentation and promiscuity of bohemian postwar Paris.

With its ravishing black-and-white images and jazzy harmonica score, the film is exquisitely realized. In some scenes, Mordillat's style is spare and straightforward; in others, moody and expressionistic. All the while, this chaotic, ranting presence burns at the center of the movie, bellowing from the depths of his raging heart.

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