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En compagnie d'Antonin Artaud (1994)
(aka My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

It's often said that artistic genius requires a dash of insanity, which certainly seems true for Antonin Artaud (Sami Frey). What's not so obvious is whether this particular talent can be passed from master to pupil, a theme explored in My Life and Times.... Jacques Prevel (Marc Barbe) is the familiar struggling young poet, ensconced in his garret with only pen and paper to his name. However, some distraction emanates from his mistress Rolande (Valerie Jeannet), while wife Jany (Julie Jezequel) slaves to earn a wage, pregnant and neglected. Jacques learns that the celebrated writer and actor Antonin Artaud is shortly to be released from the mental asylum, where he has been for the past nine years. Since he sent some letters and poetry during this period, Jacques arranges an introduction through good friend Marthe (Clotilde de Bayser).

Artaud fails to live up to Jacques heightened expectations though, behaving in a brusque and distant manner rather than welcoming him into the exalted circle of poets. Disappointed, Jacques retreats to penning new verse. A short while later Artaud summons Jacques, perhaps because he wishes to impart some great wisdom to this new writer, but all he wants is someone to procure laudanum for him. Grateful for even this small contact, Jacques throws his full energy into gathering the drug from wary pharmacists (Rolande helps because she's partial to a little chemical stimulation herself). With this assistance Artaud embarks on a furious bout of literary creation. Words, paragraphs, thoughts, dreams and nightmares spill from him in a mighty flood, filling numerous pages. Artaud may be closed in upon himself in all other respects, but through a single crack this torrent flows.

Jacques attempts to follow suit, often showing his work to Artaud in the hope of praise, criticism or instruction. Unfortunately his companion is too wrapped up in his own paranoid world (he is obviously not sane, but in a fairly safe way) to pay much attention, other than to demand fresh supplies of opiate. As the months pass Jacques remains locked in an embrace with Artaud, unable to progress with his own work yet reluctant to part from this occasional mentor. Their relationship could be described as friendship, yet Artaud always calls him Monsieur Prevel and never descends to the level of intimacy. Time is short for their embrace, Artaud is riddled with cancer and the effects of drug abuse while Jacques doesn't look too healthy himself. Artaud still manages to perform and get published though.

Set in post-war Paris, My Life and Times... revolves exclusively around the axis of Artaud-Prevel. Each feeds off of the other in a twisted, vampire clasp; Artaud draws life sustaining drugs and a foil for his insane theories while Prevel hopes for guidance and friendship. The problem is that throughout the film their positions are almost wholly static, only reaching some sort of resolution within the final dying moments. This frozen quality, coupled with their shared self-obsession, acts to prevent any emotional contact to the characters and concern over their future. The external roles (spouses, lovers, friends) are similarly excluded, marginalised to the degree that they become mostly unimportant. The actual acting is fine, even if Artaud looks in fairly good health when he should be literally a step away from Death's door. Also impressive are the black & white visuals, embodying a smoky jazz-like flavour, dizzying and softened. My Life and Times... will certainly appear more enthralling if you understand some of Artaud's accomplishments (like the "Theatre of Cruelty") but be prepared to labour for this pleasure.


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