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MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Holy Motors

 

 

HOLY MOTORS (Three and a Half Stars)

France: Leos Carax, 2012

Holy Motors is a film of shadows and false faces, of traveling players. of humans and machines, of mirrors  and makeup.  Behind this bizarre picture  — a  quitessentially French, perverse and quite entertaining new film by longtime “bad boy” Leos Carax — lies a near century of movie surrealism: decades of deliberately fantastic, illogical and sometimes pathological/psychological film poems in which the cineaste (Luis Bunuel or Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren or Carax or others) tries to dream on screen and to carry us into his/her maddest reveries.

Here the reveries are mad indeed. A man and a dog wake up in a strange room with a strange door that opens into a strange theatre showing a strange silent film. (Something by a Cocteau or a Bunuel?) The day is just beginning. For the rest of the film we will follow the (apparently) workday rounds of this man, a traveling player named M. Oscar (played by the defiantly sullen and unsmiling anti-star and Carax regular Denis Lavant), who is driven around in a limousine by a lady chauffeur named Celine — played by Edith Scob. who long ago, played the girl without a face in Georges Franju‘s 1960 horror-fantasy classic Eyes Without a Face. As Celine takes him around Paris in this journey to the end of the night (at the behest of a mysterious agency represented at one point by Bunuel cohort Michel Piccoli), M. Oscar appears at various places and plays various roles for a strange variety of people.

As far as I could glean or remember, M. Oscar impersonates, with Celine’s help — and thanks to a well-stocked supply of makeup and costumes in the back of the limo — a financier, an old beggar-woman, a motion capture lover/dancer in a black unitard, a wild sewer-dwelling hooligan named M. Merde, a dying uncle, a charismatic musician, a hired killer and his victim/double, and the lover of a heart-breaking chanteuse played and sung (to the hilt) by Kylie Minogue.

 

SPOILER ALERT

At the end of the day, night has fallen, the actor returns home (to an exceedingly weird household), and the cars gather together in their garage.

END OF SPOILER

The limousine-set Holy Motors, beautifully shot around Parisd by cinematographers Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape, would make an interesting double feature with David Cronenberg’s New York-set limo movie, Cosmopolis, to which it is just as compelling, less preachy and more poetic. Lavant, who has to virtually carry the movie, gives a fantastic performance, and he’s memorably supported by Scob, Minogue, Piccoli. Eva Mendes (as a model kidnapped by M. Merde) and the others. Philistines will no doubt be incensed at Carax’z perverse ending and the rest of his film’s sheer oddness. Art-lovers (and lovers of French cinema, from the reveries of Melies and Feuillade to today) may be entranced. I liked it myself.

Perhaps that’s because, as a young UW cinephile in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s, I was treated to many surrealist films by Bunuel, Cocteau, and Deren and others, and later (in other cities and theatres), to similar films by David Lynch, Wojciech Has (the sublimely convoluted Saragossa Manuscript), Jan Svankmajer and others still. So Holy Motors didn’t seem all that strange to me. Watching it was like coming home to all those three-quarters-empty student or church auditoriums or multi-purpose rooms, with their slightly stale, much-breathed air and the whir and buzz of their beautiful Kodak Pageant projectors, in which films like Un Chien Andalou, The Blood of a Poet, Meshes of the Afternoon and their many imitators unreeled to our delighted confusion and to our confused delight.

Back then, we (or most of us), the residents in those magical, depopulated theaters, would have been exasperated at anyone who tried to attach too succinct a meaning to any of the surrealist or irrealist or anti-realist films we were watxhing, despite the fact that mimeographed and mostly impenetrable six-page-or-so notes often accompanied the programs, invariably introduced by a shaggy college student with a large vocabulary.  Ah, youth and Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or!)

Carax is different, with right now an edge on most other cinematic mad dreamers. He manages to get producers to give him larger budgets. (Bunuel and Cocteau did later on in their careers as well, of course.) Not all that often, it‘s true.  Holy Motors is Carax’s first feature since Pola X (1999), and that was his first since The Lovers on the Bridge (1991). When his films show up though, they’re usually admired by the cognoscenti.  And should be. Holy Motors was liked by many critics at Cannes, and it won three major prizes (including the Gold Hugo for best feature) at the Chicago International Film Festival. It didn’t confuse me, especially, and it did delight me at times. It’s a crazy unbuttoned poem about art and acting and its practitioners and their relation to the world.

So God bless surrealism, buried meanings  and movies that wander off beaten tracks. God damn the thought police. But listen, maybe I’m just getting  older, and painfully nostalgic for the good old, bad young days of movie surrealism and cinematic mad dreams in black and white. And of dogs running free, Andalusian or otherwise. (In French, with English subtitles.)

One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Holy Motors”

  1. JoeS says:

    I wasn’t taken aback like a philistine as Wilmington puts it, as, I too, have seen plenty of Bunuel and some Cocteau and Deren. Still, as much as I kind of enjoyed HOLY MOTORS, it never approached being a unified vision as the best of Bunuel certainly did. A lot of visual delights no doubt, but, in the end it was more abstraction than edification.

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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