Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Deliriously Inventive: Leos Carax’s Holy Motors

Denis Lavant in Holy Motors

There’s a scene in Leos Carax’s enticing Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) (1986) that still resonates for me more than 25 years later. The film, a futuristic fable about a disease that is transmitted when people make love without actually feeling love, has a young man, played by Denis Lavant, express his love for a young woman by dancing to David Bowie’s "Modern Love." Lurching down the street, in a spastic manner reminiscent of Joe Cocker, and clutching his stomach as if he’s ill, he suddenly breaks out in a full run before just as quickly stopping as the infectious song is suddenly truncated, an abrupt conclusion to a man gripped by the fever of love.

Earlier, he and the girl, played by Mireille Perrier, pass by a disco but we only see the patrons’ feet moving frantically on the dance floor.  Working simultaneously as science fiction, romance and drama, Mauvais Sang was a perfect introduction to Carax’s off kilter, unique and highly inventive mode of filmmaking. Holy Motors (2012), his latest film and only his fifth feature since his  impressive1984 debut with Boy Meets Girl, is a timely reminder of how strikingly original Carax is. It’s also the most exciting movie I saw last year, proof positive that there are still a few directors out there who know how to use the medium in clever and imaginative ways. For the most part, Holy Motors is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The film begins with Carax himself starring as a character named Le Dormeur (The Sleeper), who wakes up and somehow finds himself in a move theatre as an audience watches a scene from King Vidor’s silent classic The Crowd. The scene is never explained and the movie then switches to its main tale, as Monsieur Oscar (Lavant), gets up, leaves the house, says goodbye to his kids (who tell him to work hard) and gets into a stretch limo where he begins his working day. That’s as conventional as the movie gets as Holy Motors quickly revs up. Monsieur Oscar, with the aid of Hollywood-style special-effects-type makeup, assumes various guises (and genders) and ranges through the streets of Paris, performing all manner of… well that’s the charm of the movie. (He's given assignments but we never find out by whom, or even why, one of many times when, refreshingly, the singular Holy Motors holds back information from us so we have to try to suss out what's happenings ourselves.) Monsieur Oscar gets up to all sorts of antics, which reference, but never in any obvious manner, various movie tropes (but not directly any specific movies except for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 classic Beauty and the Beast), but also gets deeply personal, as well.

There’s more than a whiff of the French New Wave in Holy Motors’ style, as the film is as likely to segue into any number of seemingly random riffs – in one Monsieur Oscar leads an accordion band in a rousing scene – before getting down to brass tacks as he assumes the role of a ‘monster’ who kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) from her shoot. (That character Monsieur Merde (Mr. Shit) first popped up in Carax’s short film Merde, part of a 2008 omnibus film called Tokyo!  to which Carax was one of three contributors.) But the movie is also a paean to Godard, Truffaut and related company in its serious content, as a (musical) love story involving a British air hostess (Kylie Minogue) turns tragic (a nod to Truffaut’s 1971 Two English Girls, perhaps?), or a man lies on his deathbed waiting for his niece to visit, possibly evoking Alain Resnais’s 1977 film Providence. In its deliberate contrivance and recognition of the fourth wall dividing audience and performer, it also can’t help but acknowledge Luis Buñuel’s delightful The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

None of these homages, which are very subtle and likely only to be fully appreciated by those with a deep knowledge of French cinema (Carax was a film critic before he turned to moviemaking) but also able to be enjoyed simply for what Carax shows us onscreen, should suggest that this is film that borrows too liberally from others. The movie is entirely Carax’s own vision as he utilizes music (everyone from Fleet Foxes to Shostakovich, Kylie Minogue to Sparks, is on the soundtrack), special effects, sound and all the accoutrements of moviemaking to form the special creature that is Holy Motors. (Think of the movie as the anti-Dogme film as Carax, unlike Lars von Trier et al, doesn’t buy into the nonsense about movies needing to be utterly unadorned to be honest.) He also throws in some quick blink-and-you-might-miss-them commentaries on present day France, as when a scantily clad model is suddenly covered up in a burka or when a sudden act of violence brings up the anti-capitalist ethos of the Occupy movement. It’s those jagged breaks in an otherwise straight-ahead narrative – and in many ways this unusual movie is a wraparound tale, with a beginning, middle and end – that allow Holy Motors to stand out and make its mark as you never know where it’s going to go next. (The friend who saw the film with me likened it to taking acid without actually ingesting any drugs, an apt metaphor for this deliriously creative movie.

Denis Lavant as Monsieur Oscar

The movie would have had a lot less impact, however, if Denis Lavant didn’t command the screen as he does here. He’s Carax’s go-to guy for his movies, having starred in all of them but one (1999’s Pola X), including Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Carax’s exuberantly dark love story which was his best known movie outside of France prior to Holy Motors. Playing 11 parts in the movie, he morphs from youngish man to senior citizen, gentle soul to violent killer, in a blink of an eye or as quickly as it takes for him to assume a new visage. It’s marvelous acting that can be underestimated, utilizing as it does an extensive use of prosthetics and masks, but that would be an error; it is in his remarkable expressions and superb body language that Lavant delivers his tour de force performance(s). (He talks less than he acts.) Veteran French actress Édith Scob (Eyes Without a Face, 1959; Le Temps retrouvé/Time Regained, 1999) offers strong support as Céline, Monsieur Oscar’s caring, but just a little off, chauffeur.

For once, I can understand a film’s strong appeal to the critics (the movie topped the year end lists of the French cultural mag Inrockuptibles and the American film magazine Film Comment, as well as placing in the Top Ten of Britain’s venerable Sight & Sound magazine). Unlike their overenthusiastic responses to movies like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which is at heart as empty-headed as they come, or even Christian Petzold’s very intelligent and well-acted Barbara, a movie which nonetheless lacks emotional resonance, Holy Motors likely reminds them of why they became film critics in the first place. It’s a movie that actually moves, that unfolds on many levels, that doesn’t lack an emotional core even it plays with the medium like Jacque Tati’s masterful Playtime (1967) and, most significantly, announces itself as something that is anything but the cookie-cutter, formulaic movies (out of America) or pretentious art house fare (from Europe) that we’re used to seeing. It’s not perfect: a couple of sequences such as a virtual reality assignment undertaken by Monsieur Oscar are tedious, even pointless, and I wish that Carax had resisted the urge to end the film almost as he began it, with its protagonist returning to the loving bosom of his family. It’s a conclusion with a surrealistic tinge, but it also betrays just a smidgen of ordinary narrative. (Unnecessarily explaining the film’s title at the very end does so, too.) Carax doesn’t go quite entirely over the top as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or Being John Malkovich (1999) did but he comes very close. Incidentally, the movie comes out on DVD on Feb. 19 in North America, but try to see it on the big screen since it will lose more than most movies on a reduced palette. In any format though, Holy Motors is what all films should aspire to. It’s the reason the movie camera was invented in the first place.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s Life Institute and will be teaching a course there on What Makes a Movie Great?, beginning on Feb. 8.

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