Friday, December 21, 2012

Holy Motors

“Living beings have been frequently and in every age compared to machines, but it is only in the present day that the bearing and the justice of this comparison are fully comprehensible.”
—Etienne-Jules Marey, Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion 

There are long takes and then there are long takes. It took Leos Carax 26 years and four films, but he has finally completed a sequence that first began in Mauvais Sang in 1986, a take so long it stretches over the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Centre. It begins with Denis Lavant, the director’s stand-in and errant muse, sprinting down a darkened street. His steps are hesitant at first, his movements cramped and quaking, until he slips some unseen shackle and skitters across the pavement, suddenly light as air. His momentum propels him into 1991, and the camera follows in a single unbroken motion. Now he dances across the Pont Neuf in Paris with his lover, dancing until both are too tired to stand without the other’s help, and the sky explodes in approval. In 2008, he is reborn as a leprechaun with mange climbing out of the sewers of Tokyo, lurching forth as if some sort of malevolent infant learning to walk. The old joy now curdled into something grotesque and mocking, he eats flowers and steals crutches—yet not without a certain grace, it must be admitted.

What are the films of Leos Carax about? A viewer mutters this question darkly under his breath, peevish at being asked to endorse this art-sick whimsy without the guarantee of a neat statement to explain away all this giddy image-making, like “Codependency isn’t very fun when you’re alone” or “Everyone likes a good shit” (admittedly, a fairly apt summary of 2008’s Merde). This viewer is looking for the guardrail, the thing that says this is a road and this is not, this is where you drive safely and this is where you fall off a cliff and die in flames. Carax routinely, gleefully, compulsively falls off that cliff. He seems to direct from the gut, shutting his eyes and charging into the unknown. Surely he begins with destinations in mind, statements to be made about life and love and art, questions to be asked of history and society, but such high-minded goals fall away once the filming starts and Carax gets his grubby hands on the images. Naturally, such a director can be hard to peg if one looks too deeply into the work for a lucidity that wasn’t there in the first place. Setting aside his Herman Melville adaptation Pola X, which is a confounding thing of its own breed, and his first film Boy Meets Girl, which I haven’t seen, Carax’s films tend to be about one singular thing: Denis Lavant running.

After all these decades, Lavant’s marathon appears to have reached its logical end in Holy Motors. The finish line, however, is not to be found in the reintroduction of Monsieur Merde, the sewer-dwelling star of Carax’s previous film. Nothing in recent memory can compare to the crass hilarity of Merde, fresh blood spluttering from his lips, licking the armpit of a blasé Eva Mendes during a fashion shoot, but this is hardly a continuation of Carax’s study of Lavant. No, the real conclusion to the marathon comes earlier in a motion capture studio. After years of unbridled movement, decades after he threw off that invisible weight in Mauvais Sang, Lavant is confined to a treadmill. Once he moved through the world with grace and precision; now the world moves around him. Virtual reality envelops the actor and renders all his actions prosaic and dull. He grits his teeth, howls, runs faster and faster. But he’s never freer than when finally flung from the treadmill.

However, it should be noted that Lavant is no simple runner here. His performance touches on a kaleidoscopic array of characters and serves as a tribute to his gifts as a physical actor. He is Monsieur Oscar, an actor going from role to role in a limo driven by, of all people, Edith Scob (best known for her ethereal turn in Eyes Without a Face, which earns a quick nod in one of the film’s funniest meta-jokes). During the course of a single night, he plays at least nine wildly disparate characters: a hitman, a hobbled old beggar, and a father lecturing a dishonest daughter, among others. The borders between performance and reality quickly disappear, leaving a world where cinema merges with life, every person an actor before a legion of unseen but omnipresent cameras. The paranoia of the notion feels completely contemporary until you realize this is an idea as old as the cinema itself, one borne of the medium’s blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The holy motors drive through Fassbinder’s wire-world, which electrifies the Matrix, which is playing 24 hours a day in a theatre in Dark City (don’t worry, it’s all just a dream, anyway).

Carax’s film is distinguished from these others by one key feature: the real world in his film has shrunken to almost nothingness. Most works in the cinema-paranoia mold cling to some form of reality beyond the nested worlds of their fictions, even if that reality is nothing more than the audience itself. Envisioning a world where performers are so dedicated that they will commit suicide if the part calls for it, Carax despairs even of this final truth. Cameras proliferate, turning all into performers—and if we’re the performers, where is the audience? When Oscar’s boss declares that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the actor retorts, “What if there is no beholder?” The film, unmoored and unhinged, is dizzying in its lack of a centering force. Reality in Holy Motors is reduced to the interior of the limo, a tiny place where Oscar isn’t even real, really, but simply allowed a brief respite from his performance. That’s all that is left of reality—a null space, a negative, where honesty is defined not as the presence of truth but the absence of lies.

The film is book ended with clips of the proto-cinematic motion studies of Etienne-Jules Marey, whose fascination with the mechanics of movement matches Carax’s own study of Denis Lavant in motion. Writing in 1879, Marey saw humans and animals as machines, complete with their own motors, holy or not: “it is life, it was said, which set all these mechanisms going, and it was believed that thus there was authoritatively established an inviolable barrier between inanimate and animate machines.” But the barrier fell to the combustion engine, a mechanical creation that hungered like a man and had its own metal organs, prompting a bemused Marey to write that the distinction between man and machine would now need to be redefined. Carax, watching the inviolable barrier between the physical and the virtual steadily break down, is no less bemused. No doubt there is a twinge of anxiety about these strange engines. A film was once a tangible thing; now it has become a data stream. So what is a film? Relationships were once a web of gestures and glances, inflections of language and the body; now they are an array of online connections, images and memes replacing a shared past. So what is a relationship? Marey and Carax both speak to this terror: not a fear of what drives the new machines, but a fear of forgetting what drove the old.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Fame is often the cruelest fate inflicted upon an artist, as Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock so aptly, if unwittingly, proves. This film may very well represent a turning point in the history of Alfred Hitchcock in popular culture, when knowledge of the director’s personality outstrips knowledge of the director’s films. Note the moment in the film when Hitchcock disdainfully remarks upon “that television show,” lamenting how it has cheapened him. So why would Gervasi use the familiar theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and even frame the story—about the marital tensions between Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville during the filming of Psycho—much like an episode of the series? Because that’s what the public will recognize, of course. Hitchcock has become an oversized personality that an actor can slip into as readily as the fat suit Anthony Hopkins dons for the part. By equating the man’s public persona to his private life, the film makes a muddle of itself, while Gervasi’s flat-footed style is a poor substitute for his subject’s graceful orchestration of images. With so little insight into the primal, unsettling Psycho on display, all the film can offer is the faint voyeuristic thrill of gossiping about dead people. The stale odour of ossified art that so distinctly emanates from the screen is more noxious than anything out of the basement of the Bates home.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The World Before Her

Traditionalism collides with modernity in The World Before Her, a provocative study of Hindu extremists and beauty pageants in India from documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja. Weaving the two radically opposed worlds together produces unexpected—and sometimes even amusing—results. Who would expect the martial drills of the young extremist girls to pale in comparison to the rigorous training regimen of the budding pageant queens? (Skin whitening is not uncommon, and botox is apparently a necessity for the girls, even at the tender age of 19.) Aside from these uncomfortable contrasts, Pahuja also benefits greatly from the candour of her subjects, one of who frankly discusses branding his daughter Prachi’s foot for lying about doing her homework. Prachi remains blasé about the abuse, preferring to channel her rage into the task of teaching young girls to handle rifles and chant violent nationalist slogans. By comparison, the dehumanization of the pageant world is markedly less violent, but both realms offer limited opportunities to Indian women. During the pageant, the ominous words “Pantaloons Femina” hang over the stage—a quiet reminder of how these modern women are no less branded than their fundamentalist counterparts.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Killing Them Softly

Don’t let the historical gloss on Killing Them Softly fool you. The setting may occasionally resemble New Orleans circa 2008, but Andrew Dominik’s latest—an unholy merging of Goodfellas and The Wealth of Nations—is a truly dystopian nightmare. Opening with images of a desiccated slum and eddies of garbage dancing in the wind, the film cuts between an Obama speech and clanging music, dismembering the soaring rhetoric and offering a hint of the grisly horror show to come. In this fanciful kingdom of dirt and sorrow, every television in every dive bar is tuned to an endless loop of political speeches, subjecting the film’s cast of dim-witted, low-level thugs to a tag-team civics lecture conducted by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. This feels less like a real city and more like someone’s particularly obscure and specific idea of hell. Instead of the lake of fire these shiftless crooks will apparently endure an eternity of past and future presidents scolding them for their lack of community spirit.

So America is a gangster nation with a gangster economy—point well taken, Mr. Dominik. This subtext blares out over every scene, but the best moments come when the director drops the megaphone and whispers his wrathful visions straight into the viewer’s ear. The brutality of the film finds its peak in the slow-motion collapse of Scoot McNairy’s hapless hood, who, given the choice between false hope and open despair, settles on the former simply because it allows him the merciful illusion that there isn’t a bullet somewhere with his name on it. Such moments capture the disillusionment of the past four years in the United States far better than Brad Pitt’s Big Speech, which helpfully reminds us that America is a business, in case anyone napped through the past two hours (perhaps all this soft killing lulled you to sleep, who knows). But the greatest horror of all awaits viewers like myself with the good fortune to watch the film in a multiplex where the exits just happen to pass by a major department store’s fragrance counter. The dead-eyed model in the Chanel No. 5 poster is the film’s weary killer, and both say the same thing: Pay up.