My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud: Starring Sami Frey as French Poet-Intellectual

(French title: En Compagnie d’Antonin Artaud)

In “My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud,” Sami Frey gives such an astonishingly intense performance that his portrait of the genius and madness of the famed French poet-intellectual is far more insightful than that offered in the documentary, “The True Story of Artaud the Momo,” co-directed by Mordillat and Jerome Prieur.

In its chronicle of a peculiar, obsessive friendship, evocative mood, and stylized black-and white cinematography, this fictionalized drama bears some resemblance to Christopher Munch’s “The Hour and Times.” Appealing in an idiosyncratic way, special pic deserves festival exposure and art-house attention, especially in the U.S. where Artaud’s name is virtually unknown.

The narrative begins in May 1946, when Artaud (Frey) returns to Paris after spending nine years in a Rodez asylum. His return is eagerly anticipated by Jacques Prevel (Marc Barbe), a young ambitious poet, determined to follow his mentor in all his wanderings, be it nursery homes or Saint Germain-des-Pres cafes.

A complex relationship and intimate bond evolve between the two, with Prevel becoming Artaud’s disciple, companion–and supplier of drugs. Prevel’s post-War existence, marked by misery and suffering, is brightened by his socio-sexual interactions with his legit wife and long-time mistress.

The fictionalized journal is narrated by Prevel, centering on the last two years of Artaud, who died in l948. It’s a measure of the film’s perceptual sensitivity that it captures the creative persona of Artaud, for whom “words were bombs,” as well as the artistic milieu that surrounded him in the l940s.

There have been too many clichd movies about suffering poets, but this one sheds fresh light on the effects of pain–and mental disorder–on creativity. Illustrating Artaud’s self-rationalizing motto that “sickness makes you stronger,” the film is excellent at showing the hallucinating stride and wounds of a man who, confined to asylums, was ravaged for most of his life by the excruciating pain of cancer and devastating effects of drugs.

Ultimately, the film derives its emotional power from Frey’s dominating performance of Artaud’s contradictory persona, by turns shocking and magnificent, cruel and sensitive, misogynist and devoted friend. Frey, who bears physical resemblance to Artaud, borrows some of Artaud’s notorious gestures and gauntness, without imitating him. Strong chemistry between him and Barbe, as the young and handsome but less talented poet, makes their intense encounters credible.

Technical credits are impressive on all levels: Resourceful lensing and production design, and mindful location work contribute to an indelible sense of time and place. In some scenes, the picture’s visual style approximate surrealist cinema as well as “Theater of the Absurd,” two schools of thought of which Artaud was a founder, as evidenced in his seminal treatise, “The Theatre and Its Double.”

Credits

French fictional biopicture. An Archipal 33/Laura Productions/La Septe-Arte/ France 2 production. Produced by Denis Freyd. Directed by Gerard Mordillat. Screenplay, Mordillat and Jerome Prieur, based on Jacques Prevel’s “En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud.” Camera (b&w), Francois Catonne; editor, Sophie Rouffio; music, Jean-Claude Petit; art direction, Jean-Pierre Clech; sound, Pierre Lorrain, Dominique Dalmasso. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 12, l994. Running time: 93 min.

Antonin Artaud….Sami Frey
Jacques Prevel…Marc Barbe