If Dillinger is dead, who will take revenge? There were movies once that began, “Custer is dead,” in which you could reckon that a lot of Indians were going to pay the price. This bizarre film by Marco Ferreri (only just released in the United States, forty years after it was made) is a most peculiar story about the way in which one man on the brink of alienation deals with his wife and his mistress and gets away to Tahiti as a ship’s cook on a three-masted schooner.
The man is Michel Piccoli. He seems to be an executive at some chic factory that makes masks that will enable workers to function in toxic atmospheres. A colleague reads him an article asserting that the masks are a metaphor for dehumanization. Has everybody got the point?
Dillinger Is Dead was made in that disgusted blast against advertising and the modern age that is also in evidence early in Godard’s Pierrot le fou, as the film travesties the language and languor of commercials. But whereas Jean-Paul Belmondo is a forlorn fighter in Godard’s great film, desperate to hold on to love, no matter that he only believes in lost love, Piccoli here is . . . well, he’s Piccoli.
As an actor, or a screen presence, Piccoli always has the patient but bored air of someone in a rehearsal or a run-through. You feel like asking, Doesn’t he know he’s in a movie? But then you realize that his detachment is lovely and revealing. It amounts to an elegant, wistful despair.
So he comes home from the factory, and Anita Pallenberg seems to be his wife. She’s in bed with a headache, and he goes downstairs for the dinner she has left for him. Somehow it’s inadequate, so he begins to cook another meal for himself.
The whole film is his evening at home, cooking, watching movies on his home screen, and necking with Annie Girardot, who is the maid or his mistress, or both. Their thing is for him to lick honey from the ridge of her spine.
Ferreri’s daydream is poised between the sinister and the absurd, and like the surrealism to which it aspires, its best moments are a smooth puree of both. But violence is building. The man finds a vintage revolver wrapped in an old newspaper reporting on Dillinger, and there is real newsreel footage of the gangster, who was shot coming out of a movie in Chicago. He cleans the gun, takes it apart, and puts it together as a sparkling red toy. You can’t believe there’s any power or danger to it. But there’s a surprise, and after that the man goes for a swim and finds the schooner that will take him to Tahiti.
No, they don’t make films like this anymore—it’s full of the subversive mood of the late sixties. What’s unusual in Dillinger Is Dead is the grace and the nonchalance, and the shock is in the way the ease carries us into outrage. It’s a reminder of the great Luis Buñuel. See it while you can.