Sunday, November 11, 2012

Off-Road, All-Terrain (Holy Motors)

Here we go again: Leos Carax's Holy Motors (2012), like The Artist, Hugo, and Argo over the past year, is a "love letter to movies." It's about the power of cinema, you see, a dominion the medium's most dogmatic (read: insecure) supporters grow ever more insistent is indomitable and all-encompassing, a claim nearly as tedious and tunnel-visioned as the rash of preliminary obits they're quick to lash out against. They seem to not consider that some of their most revered auteurs made films that skeptically deconstructed movies (Welles, Altman, De Palma), or the possibility that Carax has crafted an epitaph as well.

The plot of Holy Motors is already famously indescribable - the closest approximation being it's about a day in the life of a mysterious individual, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who assumes the identity of various characters (father, beggar, hit-man, dwarf, etc.), as he's driven around Paris in a white stretch-limo. Yet if the story is hard to classify the film's mood-trajectory feels familiar, largely comic for the first half before veering into melancholy and tragedy in the second. Oscar has nine "appointments" throughout the day (I assume he accomplishes all of them, I lost count), and those that draw the biggest laughs and provide the most energy occur in the opening hour: a dwarf kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) during a fashion shoot; a motion-capture sex scene, with Oscar donning an Andy Serkis-like suit; an enthralling "Entr'acte featuring Oscar leading a group of accordion players around in an Aaron Sorkin-like circle. The tone shifts, however, during a quiet passage where Oscar portrays a father disappointed that he captures his daughter in a lie; then progressively darkens, without really deepening, through a string of scenes where Oscar is "killed," as well as a wistful musical interlude featuring Kylie Minogue.

While I think Carax's film is too insular and calculatedly bizarre to earn emotional resonance (although Lavant's scenes with Edith Scob, as his devoted chauffeur, come close), it's fair to interpret - via the later passages, the physical weariness of his lead actor, the expressions of longing for a past where the cameras weren't small - that he sees cinema less as a vital, indestructible force than in the throes of a death-grip. Or, perhaps, like Paul Schrader, he sees cinema as not dying but changing - like Oscar, morphing into a different form. (Holy Motors was shot entirely on digital; and, sorry again, film purists, but the 2K DCP version I saw looked gorgeous.) The climax - or, rather, one of them - where Oscar plays papa to a house of chimps, could be seen to symbolize the medium in an evolutionary state.

What saves Holy Motors for me isn't any semblance of depth but that its best parts embody mischief. The film has an ornery spirit and a sense of a nutty fun, most notably in that dwarf sequence, when Lavant runs through a cemetery where the tombstones feature website URLs, and the director/photographer of the fashion shoot seems to be there for a pointed jab at David Lynch's worldview. "Beauty! Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!" he shouts excitedly while photographing Mendes; then, when he spots Lavant's demented leprechaun: "Weird! Weird! Weird! Weird!" As with all of Lynch's films, critics are showing off their collective imagination by calling Carax's "dreamlike" (described as such in at least 14 of 26 reviews linked by Metacritic). But Holy Motors is nothing like a dream. It feels utterly, completely a movie, in all its glories and limitations.


Ronak M Soni said...

I don't really get tired of this love-letters to movies business, mostly because the good ones will be about life (very trite, I know, but still). Artist for example interested me to the extent that it was about the struggles and inner lives of the dude and the dudette.

More importantly, I find calling this a love letter to movies kind of ridiculous; yes, it is about acting but acting in real life.
The Kylie Minogue bit seems especially significant - as it went on it dawned on me that it was not a moment of honesty but another appointment. This doesn't seem so much a skeptical deconstruction of movies as it does one of life.

Er, there's more to say here but it's coming out garbled so I'll give up now. I hope you got some idea of what I'm saying.

Craig said...

Busy week, sorry for the late reply. I'm not objecting so much to movies that are "love letters to cinema," or whatever (although the hate mail is often more interesting), as I am cinephiles who assume that about every movie that's about movies. As you said, "Holy Motors" pretty clearly isn't.