My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud

Legendary French screen actor Antonin Artaud was a monstre sacre, an accolade meaning an irresistibly diabolical personage.His cinematic mystique, as well as his writings, such as The Theatre and Its Double and The Theatre of Cruelty, influenced a generation of theater and film actors in Europe and the United States.His indelible acting in such silent French classic films as Abel Gance’s visionary masterpiece, Napoleon and Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc made his face iconic.

Director Gerard Mordillat’s portrait of the actor-poet-director, My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud, was made in 1993 but may be more potent now in the age of celebrity bio-pics (many so reverential that stories become passion plays).Mordillat’s is an audacious approach to get to the flesh and blood man without depicting the events of his life.It is a rare film treatment of a real star that actually has something to say about the person that is not already known and writer director Mordillat’s approach is daringly original and occasionally unseemly.He keeps the story deceptively simple, framing a rich character study and emerging with a rare film that actually has something interesting to say about the creative process.

Based on the diaries of Jacques Prevel, En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud, My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud is a fictionalized story of the friendship between the actor and a poet who is obsessed with him.It unfolds in post-World War II Paris, where Artaud has just been released from an asylum for either a breakdown or treatment for drug addiction.Prevel suffers from a bad case of bohemian hero worship but is otherwise living a lush life with family, mistress, cafe society and poetic aspirations on his plate.

Artaud strings Prevel (played intensely by Marc Barbe) along as a mentor poet just to get him to score opiates for him.Artaud, who is obsessed with drugs, acting, sex, his legacy and incarceration, has a coterie of disciples that moves around him like marionettes. There is a wrenching scene where Artaud sadistically orders an actress to repeat her lines until her throat and emotions are so raw she is psychologically scarred. The text of those lessons intriguingly come into play later when Artaud confronts Prevel for being an artistic poseur.

Sami Frey’s electrifying performance as Artaud is both coolly operatic and maniacal, interweaving the persona of Artaud and a full portrait of the measure of the real man.It’s no wonder that he picked up acting awards in Europe when the film was released.He pulls off such loaded dialogue as "Beware, there are informers everywhere.." and "When people have sex they deprive me, Antonin Artaud.You must avoid it, Mr. Prevel," with sardonic gravitas.

Sometimes Mordillat slides into some thematic bloat, such as Jacques’ hollow-eyed girlfriend, Jany, overdosing on drugs and being brought around by him making love to her. At one point Prevel is roused out of bed with his mistress because his wife is in labor.

Mordillat completely engages with the visual style of this film, which comes across well, even on a small screen.His liberal use of montage and the cinematography of Francois Catonneconstitute an homage to the great silent French film revolution and the later French New Wave films of Truffaut and Goddard.

Lewis Whittington

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Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.