“Dillinger” reborn

As Michael Joshua Rowin astutely notes in his recent essay on Marco Ferreri’s “Dillinger Is Dead” (1967), which was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection on Tuesday, it’s quite a co-winky-dink that the film, a more maturely and artfully played anticipation of Chantal Akerman’s “Saute ma ville” (1968), received its first run in American arthouses the same year that Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” (2009) revived the Dillinger myth in a big way. But whereas “Public Enemies” was a road trip, “Dillinger Is Dead” is the image of a repressed anarchist taking it easy, oiling up and painting his pistol, seducing his live-in maid, murdering his wife, cooking himself a delicious dinner (that’s veal, yes?) and watching some home movies while simultaneously trying to insert himself into those memories projected at 16 fps.

Strictly speaking, “Dillinger Is Dead” isn’t about anything other than a modern individual, the spaces he’s forced to occupy and the objects he turns upside down on his quest for personal redemption—though redemption here is much more grisly, misogynistic and tongue-in-cheek than that of, say, Dostoevsky.

The film is largely dialogue-free, just one of many affinities it shares with another Akerman masterpiece, “Jeanne Dielman…” (1975). One comes to memorize the layout of Piccoli’s apartment no less than one becomes all too familiar with the blueprints of Jeanne’s domestic prison. But whereas “Jeanne Dielman…” concludes with an abrupt and startling act of violence, the mariticide that serves as the climax of “Dillinger Is Dead” feels utterly natural, like the only logical direction in which Ferreri could’ve taken things.

Michel Piccoli is excellent, playing a designer of gas masks as a mime sitting on a mountain of murderous impulses whose origins apparently lie outside of himself. One of his colleagues refers to Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man during a rant at the beginning of the film, unapologetically baring Ferreri’s political orientation. Indeed, Ferreri went on to produce agitprop by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Dziga Vertov Group. But unlike Godard and Gorin’s films, which sought to assume forms that would never seem conventional in any way whatsoever, “Dillinger Is Dead” contains a definite, carefully constructed diegetic space and chronology. The events that transpire within this artificial world are aggressively fake, utterly improbable and ludicrously cinematic—which is, of course, the point.

There’s plenty to be grateful for in this 95-minute gem. The Criterion DVD is now available at Four Star Video Heaven.

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