Friday January 26, 1996

     Antonin Artaud is most widely known today for his intense portrayal in Carl Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc" as the handsome young priest, the only cleric sympathetic to the Maid of Orleans and her martyrdom.
     He was also a poet and theoretician, lamenting the loss of spirituality in modern life. He founded his influential Theater of Cruelty with the belief that what was presented on the stage ought to have real-life consequences. By the late '30s, however, Artaud (1896-1948) was committed to a mental institution.
     Gerard Mordillat's bleak but compelling "My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud" concentrates on the final two years of his life after he gained his freedom in 1946 from a large asylum not far from Paris. Mordillat and co-writer Jerome Prieur have based the film on the diaries of Jacques Prevel, a struggling poet who had sent Artaud some of his work, received an encouraging return letter and sought him out once Artaud could venture into Paris again.
     Specifically, Prevel (Marc Barbe) wanted Artaud's permission to use the letter as an introduction to a collection of his poetry and hoped that Artaud (Sami Frey), who swiftly denied his request, would become his mentor; what he did instead was to turn Prevel into his supplier of large quantities of opium and laudanum.
     Yet Mordillat, in the developing connection between the two men, discovered a rich opportunity to consider the nature of friendship in such depth and complexity that we can recognize ourselves in these two men, both of whom would seem so different from most of us.
     In a great portrayal, Frey--who bears a certain resemblance to Artaud--creates a ravaged-looking yet still dynamic Artaud steeped in paranoia and flights of megalomania and delusion. "I've survived my own death," he remarks wryly. His Artaud can be crazed, savage and yet, in quieter moments, kind, gentle and concerned for others. He's a resilient artist who has learned to fuel his art with his myriad demons; for him self-destruction has become an art form.
     By contrast Prevel, on the verge of tuberculosis, apparently has received virtually no recognition, does a lot of Left Bank hanging out and spends most of his time with his waif-like mistress Jany (Julie Jezequel, who recalls Edie Sedgwick with her shock of blond hair and sad eyes), leaving his pregnant wife, Rolande (Valerie Jeannet), to cope for herself--and to do his laundry. Whatever the sources of Prevel's income may be, they are slender. Barbe manages to engage us in the fate of a not particularly sympathetic man.
     Those who have had the experience of being close to an artistic genius will recognize that familiar sense of isolation Artaud experiences, even in the midst of acolytes, and the challenge such a remarkable individual has in dealing with us lesser mortals.
     How honest can the great man of vision be with the work and accomplishments of his inferiors? Artaud is notably cagey in rendering opinions of Prevel's poetry when the younger man seeks them out. Yet even living legends need companionship, and Prevel's reward for living in reflected glory was the opportunity to make a record of Artaud's final years (which were far more productive than the film suggests).
     Shooting in a harsh black and white, Mordillat evokes the humorless Existentialist atmosphere of the Left Bank in postwar Paris. Most of the characters take themselves seriously with an unflagging relentlessness, and Artaud provokes laughter only in moments of outrage, yet Mordillat is skillful enough to draw us into the story. "My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud" proceeds confidently with spareness, dispatch and a refreshing lack of pretense.


My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud, 1996. Unrated. A Leisure Time Features presentation. Director Gerard Mordillat. Executive producer Denii Freyd. Screenplay by Mordillat, Jerome Prieur; based on the diaries of Jacques Prevel. Cinematographer Francois Catonne. Editor Sophie Rouffio. Music Jean-Claude Petit. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Sami Frey as Antonin Artaud. Marc Barbe as Jacques Prevel. Julie Jezequel as Jany. Valerie Jeannet as Rolande Prevel.