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

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

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.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.