Life: The Movie – an Eco of Perec
A film of George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual
Directed by Umberto Eco

Review by Ronald Flanagan

“Life: the Movie” is really a misnomer for a production that is built almost entirely on still images, and that, in length and style, resembles a documentary series. Forty two hours, direct to DVD.
When semiotician cum novelist, Umberto Eco teamed (as director) with actor/producer Gérard Depardieu, to bring Perec’s great Oulipian novel to the viewing public, he set out to create “a work of art like none that has been made before.”
“...because,” Eco said, picking up a baroque recorder from his desk, “that novel is like no book ever written.” He paced the room, solemnly playing a few notes from Monteverdi’s Oblivion soave. I mentally sang the English words I had once heard: “Mayy sweeeet ooblii-ii-vionn luu-u-uull theeeee...
Eco suddenly swung to face me. “It’s a moment frozen in time,” he said, skewering the thought in mid-flight with a sword-like thrust of the ancient instrument. “So the movie is the book – you understand?...Georges would have approved.”
I asked him why he chose the English translation, rather than the original French. At first he was cryptic. “Perec was an orphaned Polish Jew,” he observed, sounding almost incredulous. “He had no nationality.” He leaned closer to me, confidentially; more matter of fact-ly. “David Bellos is a good translator...You have read Bryson’s Mother Tongue?” I nodded my assent. “It will reach the widest audience.”
After a pause he added: “You know Plato’s cave? – The shadows on the wall?” Again I nodded. “Read your Calvino. Perec’s book was intentionally sciagraphic. It was all shadows. Bellos made a reflection of those shadows. I gave the world a reflection of that reflection.” In some obscure European way, this seemed to make sense.
A picture is worth a thousand words might be a cliché; but for Eco it is a “tool of trade” (“...a real cliché, of course”, Eco mischievously observed). “But it ain’t my trade;” he quipped, “just a hobby.”
Some hobby! The “movie” begins in darkness, with the second movement of Bach’s BWV1031 as background. Then a half-screen shot of the book’s cover. The book opens. The pages turn. It works through end paper, title page, Queneau dedication, Contents, the G.P. disclaimer, the poignant Michael Strogoff admonition, “Look with all your eyes, look.”
The word “Preamble” appears in an old silent movie cartouche, together with the Klee quote. Then Depardieu, as Valène (but made-up to look remarkably like Perec), appears on screen against a shadowy, blurred background, to deliver the treatise on crosswords, verbatim, together with illustrations (as in the text) traced on a sheet of paper.
Meanwhile, the picture fades to still photographs of Eco (Gaspard Winckler) and John Malkovich (Percival Bartlebooth) in their respective occupations of puzzle-maker and puzzler. When Depardieu next appears, in Foulerot, 1, (and thereafter) he too is reduced to still photographs.
The pages turn again: “PART ONE” … “CHAPTER ONEOn the Stairs, 1” (in cartouches). … A dumb-show of a woman climbing stairs, with an anonymous commentator’s voice saying: “Yes, it could begin this way…” Then a still shot of Saul Steinberg’s drawing, The Art of Life, as the commentary continues through every word of Chapter One, the images flashing between still photographs of Winckler, Winckler’s room, snapshots of the residents and items mentioned, more shots of the woman climbing, all in coordination with the spoken text, all brilliantly supported by appropriate sound effects of incidental background noises.
Thus the story proceeds. Cartouches containing labels introduce the chapters. The documentary voice tells all. The background sounds have a hollow, ghostly quality. A hand-held camera enters rooms as they are described, focusing on items of furniture, bric-a-brac, Tussaud-like images of individuals frozen in mid-action, books, paintings, in-text decorations; whatever Perec has specified. A subtle touch is the inclusion of a volume of La Vie mode d’emploi, incidentally, once in every apartment, the camera panning casually over it, along with the clutter of other items.
Hundreds of thousands of frozen images illustrate the scenes or tell the stories: photographs, paintings, sculptures, dioramas, silhouettes, computer-graphics, news-cuttings, jigsaw puzzles, chalk-board expositions, chess games, and every other conceivable form of two-dimensional or three-dimensional still-life. They are fractured images, representing the momentarily captured, quotidian realities of the lives of various ordinary and extraordinary people who, at one time or another, populated the Parisian apartment building situated at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, or who were somehow connected with those who did. It is an archive of multitudinous experiences and lived spaces. It is Valène’s master-work in all its glory.
There are only two action scenes, apart from the documentary camera’s roving eye: Depardieu’s opener and the anonymous woman climbing the stairs. The occasional dialogues are presented in cartoon form with remote vocal back-up.
There are no credit listings. Instead, the series ends with on-screen reproductions of all the Appendices, even the “Translator’s Note,” scrolled through, just slowly enough for a speed-reader to view. And finally, a blank page.
Yes the movie is the book, and the book in microcosmic complexity is life captured like a cover shot on Time in all its hectic immediacy.
“Some people have said that Perec was playing God,” I suggested to Eco.
“I have merely republished the book,” Eco replied. “I leave it to you writers to make the critiques.”
“Well what about the ex caelis oblatus of E.c.o … given from Heaven – and the of by God of de par Dieu?” I continued. “Is that only a coincidence?”
He gave me an enigmatic smile, as he once more picked up the antique recorder. “Write me an honest review,” he said, extending his right hand in a warm gesture of farewell. A servant suddenly appeared from nowhere to usher me out, and I realized that the interview was at an end.
As I walked through the book-lined rooms towards the exit portal, the divine Adagio from Albinoni’s Opus 9, no.2 echoed through the hollows of the great man’s labyrinthine Milanese apartment.

(Entry by Ronald Flanagan)