Skip to main content

I think I caught a cold killing the banker.

Holy Motors
(2012)

(SPOILERS) Holy Motors was a fixture of 2012’s Top 10 lists; a critics’ darling. As a consequence, anyone who doesn’t fall for its charms runs the risk of being labelled a philistine (or “une philistine”, perhaps). I could claim relief that I did like it, although I’ve never had much compunction about dismissing arty pretentiousness as arty pretentiousness when I see it. A significant portion of Holy Motors is arty pretentiousness, but a fair amount of it is also genuinely quite clever, interesting, entertaining and amusing (all of this with the caveat of “probably”; it might all be a crock). I didn’t fall for it hook, line and sinker and I wasn’t enraptured (there’s a point where willfully obtuse works all begin to look the same) but I was diverted.


To indicate my lack of devotion to the difficult career of cineaste Leos Carax, the only previous of his pictures I recall seeing is Les amants du Pont-Neuf. Which was unfortunate enough to arrive at a time when the presence of Juliette Binoche in any non-English language film seemed obligatory. It was a difficult, expensive, picture to make, and one that hastened Carax’s disappearance from cinemas only to return with a widely derided film (Pola X). This is his first full-length feature since, although it is comprised of a collection of linked vignettes. They are united by the limo journey of actor Oscar (Denis Lavant) from appointment to appointment. At each stop Oscar adopts a different guise and a different form of expression (of genre?) This is one of those films that invites wildly divergent interpretations, in part because the filmmaker himself may not be quite sure what he is saying.


The Guardian celebrated it as “a scattershot thesis on the nature of performance”. As Holy Motors’ apparent dissection of the apparatus of filmmaking (coming from a director who started out writing for Cahiers du Cinema), this seems like a rather too literal, superficial, interpretation. If that is all it is about, then maybe its pretensions are just that. The paraphernalia of movie making is a constant presence, the director himself appearing in the first scene, and the picture takes in everything from the nuts and bolts of performance-capture to gangster films, deathbed tragedy, and musicals. But that surely isn’t what the picture is really about.  Lead actor Lavant referred to it as “a poetic declaration of love for mankind today” but Carax was dismissive of such a take.


The director reluctantly claims Holy Motors as “a parable of human relationships in the internet age” (that would be the heavy-handed gravestones with website addresses on them, then; a profound visual metaphor there, Leos), and “the fatigue of being oneself… The answer is to reinvent oneself”. Which makes him sound like a right old misery guts. But there’s a sense in this picture that the director is at play; while his Oscar (winner?) enters each scene whole-heartedly, there is little sense of the truly threatening in even the most disturbed scenario. Moments recall David Lynch (the bedroom wall the director walks through, or the confrontation with his doppelganger) or Cronenberg (the womb-like limo from which the protagonist emerges periodically can’t help but seem similar to another 2012 picture, Cosmopolis) but Carax doesn’t get under your skin the way those to two do. Maybe it’s because this meditation is so obtuse, or maybe it’s because the form itself is distancing; our involvement in the onscreen happenings is ephemeral, and without ultimate consequence (so cinema as a metaphor for cinema, then?)


Oscar is driven around by his chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob). At each stop, Oscar disembarks, assuming a new guise. He is an old woman begging. Then an actor in a performance-capture suit on a sound stage, entering an erotic entanglement of PVC and lights with a statuesque “co-star” as their actions are reinterpreted in Gigeresque CGI form. Most distractingly, he becomes a feral ginger fiend in emerald suit with a voracious appetite for any substance in proximity to his mouth; he consumes wreaths, money, hair and fingers.  And then reveals his stiffy (much less coyly than Pacino’s in Stand Up Guys). He also wipes blood on Eva Mendes’ armpit.


As a father, Oscar remonstrates his daughter for not having a good time at party or flinging herself at boys (it’s a cute inversion, see?) before embarking on a rousing accordion interlude through a cathedral. Then there’s that Lynchian murder in a warehouse, where he and his quarry are one and the same. A man appears in his limo to whom Oscar opines “some don’t believe in what they’re watching any more”. Off again, he murders a banker (the same banker Oscar “plays” at the start of the film, when he is first picked up). There follows a deathbed tragedy, where both parties must cut short their doomy foreplay to leave for appointments. Following this, Oscar’s limo is involved in an unscheduled altercation with another limo carrying Kylie Minogue. Who breaks into song about how “we once had a child”. She is there to meet a lover (leadfing to not-a-little strawberry jam). Oscar’s final appointment takes him “home” to a family of apes, while Celine returns the limo to the Holy Motors depot. After she leaves, masked, the assembled cars begin talking to each other.


What to make of it all? Perhaps Holy Motors is all in the eye of the beholder. This doesn’t strike me as a picture demanding onion-like layers of unpeeled readings, but you know that it will receive them anyway. There is a hypnotic abandon in viewing the antic appointments unfold.


Right from the first scene, the director is there, apparently confused by the sight of an undiscerning theatre audience with their eyes shut. They aren’t even paying attention. Why are they sleeping through the art over which he sweats blood (does Carax demand readings of his resistant movies, to satisfy his intellectual reflexes)? Those undiscerning fools! There is even a sense that this level of arthouse impenetrability, where even the director isn’t sure what it’s all about, is willing the viewer to dismiss it. Then the auteur can return to the seclusion of his ivory tower safe in the knowledge that no one understands. If so, Carax failed this time.


The critics took the bait, never keen to be labelled dumb. Which isn’t to say this is some kind of emperor’s new clothes, but I’d be lying if I professed to understand it’s very essence. This is the kind of picture Monty Python would have done a sterling job sending up if they were still together (perhaps Fellini fan Gilliam can do a special bit for their stage show) and, if Holy Motors didn’t possess a vibrant sense of humour (albeit a very dark one), all might be lost in a wasteland of obscure surrealism and fractured social commentary. One wonders if it really wants to be analysed. The film may be more content to be just “weird and interesting” than to be examined thoroughly for untold depths and found to come up short.


So this is what occurred to me. Each day, a guardian angel ushers a human out on his life’s (lives) journey(s) (a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage). This human is filled with increasing weariness and distance from why he is actually doing any of this at all; life has become only about meeting prescribed appointments and its greater purpose is lost. Every night the limo returns to the heavenly vault (Holy Motors Inc.) and every day the process starts anew. It might be a metaphor for reincarnation. Perhaps the final appointment is a suggestion that we have devolved, no longer able to distinguish our automatic responses from the instinctive behaviour of the apes from which we are descended? A kind of reverse-Kubrick.


Maybe. Probably not. Had this picture come out 40 years ago, most likely no one would have blinked an eye. But Carax’s cogitations feel like a rarity now. Perhaps that is partly the point. His film is a chin-stroker’s delight, of which there are fewer extreme cases today. I am less than convinced it is hugely profound, yet it is striking, and slightly crazed, and appealingly demented. And Denis Lavant is an amazing actor, even if his director doesn’t think all that much of his film analysis skills.


****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…