True Story of Artaud the Momo

La veritable histoire d'Artaud le Momo

Toronto Film Festival, 1997–The True Story of Artaud the Momo is an exceedingly long, often indulgent, documentary about Antonin Artaud, the famed French actor, poet and intellectual who died in l948 at the age of 50. Though less insightful, less provocative, and less entertaining than the portrait offered in the 93-minute-feature, My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud, made by the same directors, docu should appeal to intellectual viewers of festival and art-house circuits interested in French letters and arts.

Artaud was a man of many talents, leaving his mark as an actor (as Marat in Abel Gance's silent masterpiece, “Napoleon”), playwright (“The Cenci”), screenwriter (Germaine Dulac's “Le coquille et le clergyman”) and philosopher (“The Theatre and Its Double”). But above all, he was a visionary intellectual who devoted his entire life to the exploration of the meaning and power of words (“language was life's energy to him” says a friend-poet).

While researching Artaud's life for their feature-length pic, My Life and Times with Antonin Artaud (based on Jacques Prevel's memoirs), co-directors-writers Mordillat and Prieur thought it would be a good idea to make a docu about Artaud's last years, which were marked by madness, insufferable misery and excruciating pain.

Despite rich archival footage–recitation of Artaud's poems, display of his drawings, photos of his intellectual circle, and interviews with some of his friends–docu is only partially successful as it lacks analytic focus as well as interesting structure. For the most part, it's a talking-heads docu, with interviewees facing the camera and sharing their reminiscences.

Docu's chief problem, in addition to excessive running-time, is the emphasis placed on Artaud's personality at the expense of his creative genius and body of work. Moreover, despite contradictory reports, most witnesses can't conceal their admiration for Artaud as “bigger than life,” and result is a mythical portrait, devoid of sufficient critical, dispassionate evaluation.

Some sections are quite dull: Docu spends too much time detailing the reaction of Artaud's friends to his death and the controversy over his burial–his friends protected him against the family's desire to grant him a religious ceremony.

Still, among the film's highlights is a good discussion of Artaud's theatrical philosophy, vis-a-vis the Greek tragedies which he admired, and a detailed reconstruction of a 1947 lecture that Artaud gave, which was meant to revive interest in his work, but badly misfired as a result of Artaud's anxiety and inability to deliver.

Since a major event in Artaud's life was institutionalization in various asylums for a decade, engaging issues related to his “madness” emerge, such as the problematics in diagnosing it. One witness claims that Artaud was not insane, that he just overreacted to his sickness, blaming Artaud–and bourgeois society–in stigmatizing him. There's also some humor: While hospitalized, Artaud would take long walks, then grab a taxicab, instructing the driver in a most dramatic way, “To the madhouse!”

Despite some shortcomings, docu still succeeds at conveying Artaud's intensely vibrant personality and the genius and madness that informed his life.

A Laura Productions/Les Films d'Ici/La Septe-Arte/Arcanal/Centre Georges Pompidou production. Directed by Gerard Mordillat and Jerome Prieur. Camera (color), Francois Catonne; editor, Sophie Rouffio; music, Jean-Claude Petit. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 11, l994. Running time: 170 min. With Paule Thevenin, Henri Thomas, Marthe Robert, Anie Besnard, Rolande Prevel, Jacqueline Adamov.