Last year I saw a beautiful new 35mm print of Marco Ferreri's Dillinger is Dead at BAM. I went in cold, on the suggestion of a friend who hadn't seen the movie but knew its reputation. What I didn't know was that nothing happened in the movie. I hated it. So why did I sign up to review it for Blogcritics? I asked myself that. And sat on it for months. But when I finally braced myself for what I thought would be not just any pretentious art film snoozefest, but A PRETENTIOUS ART FILM SNOOZEFEST I WAS OBLIGATED TO WRITE 300 WORDS ABOUT … I liked it. Expecting that nothing was going to happen was the perfect mindset to go into this film. As it turns out, a lot happens.
Michel Piccoli is Glauco, a gas-mask designer who becomes disillusioned with the whole military-industrial complex thing. But this is no simple anti-establishment film. Dillinger is Dead opens with Glauco overseeing gas-mask tests at the plant, then follows him as he drives through dark streets to the strains of a strange vocalese-heavy Italian pop song — one of the first of many numbers that make me wish the film came with a soundtrack album. What does this all portend? The pop-art music and pop-art colors and pop-art women combine with an absurdist plot in a movie that feels like Samuel Beckett writing an episode of Love, American Style.
While his wife (Anita Pallenberg) is in bed nursing a headache, Piccoli makes dinner and sniffs a spice jar suspiciously before tossing it into the trash. He rummages through the pantry looking for a fresh jar and knocks over a pile of magazines (hello, Hoarders fans!). Among the magazines he finds a package wrapped up in old newspaper. He unwraps it and inside it finds a dark cloth wrapped around what is clearly a gun. So what does he do next? He reads the old newspaper.
The old paper announces the titular gangster's demise. As Piccoli is reading, footage of Dillinger is injected into the film (a nice Makaveyevian touch). He unwraps the gun and, finding it in need of a tune-up, disassmbles it, puts the pieces into a bowl, and fills the bowl with olive oil, as if cooking up something sinister.
In summary the film sounds not unlike the kind of bored-house-husband-finds-old-gun-and-lubes-it-while-making-dinner story that is the hallmark of the Lifetime Network. But this does not unspool like a movie-of-the-week, and Michel Piccoli is no avuncular Ed Asner. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinema, the actor, who is on-screen for nearly the entire film, notes that "it is perhaps close to what Godard used to say to me for Contempt, that I should be 'a character from Rio Bravo acting in a Resnais film,' somehow perfectly split between the physical and the intellectual." Dillinger is Dead is not an easy movie to like but if you're in the mood for its odd rhythms, there's a droll comedy to be had here amid the pop music and misogyny.