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.

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