Art House Classics: Marco Ferreri’s Long-Forgotten Dillinger is Dead

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A compilation of must-see movies is like a palimpsest, revised with each generation, and often, those lists handily daisy-chain auteurs and films: If you dug uppercase A, you’ll dig lowercase a. But what happened to Dillinger is Dead? Since being certified a masterpiece by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Cahiers du cinema in 1969, Marco Ferreri’s controversial humdinger has been largely AWOL on most tastemakers’ radars. Until now. His minimalist satire on modern alienation will shake the cobwebs and explode on New York screens tomorrow (and screens nationwide as the year unfurls) in its first stateside release.

Distilled to its most basic state, Dillinger concerns the long-coming “awakening” — condensed into one unremarkable night — of square designer Glaucho (Michel Piccoli in speaking what sounds like Morse code). Before the credits roll, Ferreri’s camera peeks a marketing pitch for Glaucho’s newfangled gas masks that will caption every ensuing image: Everyone must wear a “mask” to survive in these times of “mimicry and standardization.” Abstract talk for sure, but also an essential bit to crack the film’s cryptic exterior.

After what appears to be another same-old workday, Glaucho returns to his comfortably modest abode, only to find a lukewarm dinner and a trophy wife (Annie Girardot) with the welcome-home warmth of a sock. To emphasize her sedate, self-contained existence, Ferreri places the blond beauty in bed where she gapes into a goldfish bowl and, in one of her few muttered lines, requests sleeping pills. Alas, this usual routine — hello supper, buonanotte spouse — echoes oft-heard notes of conformity; so Glaucho drops his put-upon act and, little by little, rages off on strange new tangents.

First on his freedom agenda: dinner. Glaucho scours his cupboards for ingredients to make his look-ma! meal of steak and couscous. During the eye-opening ordeal, he exchanges some niceties with his materialistic live-in maid (Anita Pallenberg) as she returns from a night out, and somehow disinters a gun wrapped in old Chicago newspapers that headline the film’s declamatory title. His discovery becomes both semiotic ammo and a memento mori. But rather than exploit it as Glaucho’s anticipated land-ho moment, Ferreri keeps his reaction so subtle that only a seismograph could detect the emotional and mental disturbance.

Instead, we glean Glaucho’s nascent liberation from the sequences that follow: The self-satisfied smile that creases his face after tasting his feast; his ceremonial disassembling, cleansing, and painting (bright red freckled with big, white polka dots) of what might or might not be John Dillinger’s firearm; and a perverse seduction session with his maid that involves watermelon and dripped honey. Glaucho rounds out his eventful evening by projecting telltale home movies (his wife appears pointedly more alive on the reels than in real-life) and, soon enough, psychotically faking his suicide in mirrors and shadows. Ferreri strikes an especially sardonic (and strangely irresistible) note throughout, with a ’60s AM pop soundtrack that’s full of chirpy melodies with carpe-diem lyrics like “We’re here today, gone home tomorrow.”

With oblique, slow-roast episodes that could enter Italian archives as “Bored Bourgeoisie, 1969,” Ferreri’s movie remains a loaded gun, one certainly unfit for those spectators who want a bulletpointed plot. The critique’s subversive effect is near imperceptible until it’s too late; it’s only after a chiefly mysterious, meandering runtime that the viewer is treated to an in-your-face act that’s not unlike a sudden whiff of smelling salts. Indeed, as the evening progresses, Glaucho ceremonially sloughs off his old, empty roles (as husband, industrial designer, etc.) and comes to embrace the purified, or unmasked, individual — best embodied by Dillinger (seen in archival footage), a bank robber with a mug that many could ID for his exploits.

Whether wearing a red apron or just his hirsute chest, Piccoli is typically brilliant as he effortlessly broadcasts ennui with his sell-sell-sell vocation and the restlessness that comes from a static domestic life. As internalized as he first appears, Piccoli sneaks revealing insights into his evolving character, such as the curious (and symbolic!) manner in which he tilts his head at both condiments and bullets. His progressively outré behavior simply transfixes; whether he supplements his home movies with performance art-like theatrics or apes Munch’s anguished Symbolist expressions into a bedroom mirror, these absurd and vigorous antics separate (or “save”) him from what Fereri perceives to be the drowning muck of complacency or, as it’s called on the Continent, bourgeois tendencies. Rarely has the intense task of observing an actor under arrest (psychological and physical) yielded more pleasure and takeaway than with Piccoli’s droll, alienated turn.