Storytelling is bad, poetry is worse.
It is not at all funny how something you said ages ago comes back to take a bite-sized chunk out of your backside. I don’t understand “poetry” and I am not alone. A lot of people do not understand it and yet they trade in it, revel in their own sickeningly sweet verses, preferring corn syrup to real blood. Beat poets? Gladly! Would you say poetry is obsolete? I wouldn’t go that far.
It is a force of the past. So is cinema. I have no patience for any film that breaches the two hour mark. My attention span has degraded utterly over the last few years. I can’t get through a film without pausing it a hundred times and checking my phone and my digital mailbox and entertaining such petty annoyances. Cinema, and I do mean cinema and not movies or films, is a lumbering leviathan of a forgotten country.
So, when I watched Holy Motors I was slapped in the face with freedom. Yes, freedom from the rigidity of structure, the ever oppressive regime of narration, the ever present A-Z. The inevitable troughs and crests were replaced by a handful of mysterious events. Is it a dream or is this pretty much what passes for real life these days and several nights? Would you think it so strange if someone shot someone right on the street where you learned to ride a bicycle? I don’t think so. Would you cry if your secret, enchanted forest was suddenly replaced by a spectacular city? Hardly a tear.
Oh not this G C F A song again! SO, can I just call it poetry?
I like mad films and this one is steeped in weirdness worthy of a kaleidoscope. It is consumed with an unbridled passion to tilt at several hypothetical windmills. This stands out in an age where most creators of all kinds of content are satisified with a ‘product’. Films adapted from other art, films manufactured for mass market, films free to be devoured as instant classics. And here’s Leos Carax who has the audacity to use the same freedom to make cinema with a slight dab of the crazies.
The film stars Denis Levant, as Monsieur Oscar, who lives in a limo run by a moustachioed boss. The white stretch limo is driven around beautiful Paris by, Céline, played by Edith Scob. Oscar’s face remains a mystery throughout, but it wears many masks on its own. It is a ruined, weathered face sketched on by age, the face of a computer-generated alien full of sexual puissance. Monsieur Oscar lives in “appointments”, which are presented to him in case folders. The back of the car is a dressing room.
And the appointments?
“Sauntering the pavement thus, or crossing the ceaseless ferry, faces
and faces and faces,
I see them and complain not, and am content with all.”
Are faces that Lavant/Oscar pulls on one by one for an omnipresent audience.
One, dress up as an old beggar woman, bent over ‘seeing nothing but stone and feet’ and largely ignored by people. Another, a motion-captured human being, a black skin with sensors for unseeing eyes, playing several parts in a hi-tech studio. A red-skin-clad woman shows up and this appointment culminates in a highly erotic routine that defies explanation till you see it translated to two extra-dimensional beings making love. Another, he becomes “Monsieur Merde”, a shocking transformation that ends with the abduction of a fashion model played by Eva Mendes. Last but quite clearly the best appointment he has involves, a lost love played by Kylie Minogue. Who sings. And it is beautiful.
In the beginning, the director himself awakens by a clamor beyond his walls and enters a theatre that is hidden behind a wallpaper of trees. Can you enter a theater as if in a dream?
What follows is an exhibition of grotesque. Do you need logic to get through a movie? Do you find yourself yearning for meaning and stability and all the right words and things? Or is it a yearning to escape? All that sounds really cool but can a set of wacky roles by an actor playing an actor work as a film?
There are unexpected cameos by chimps and there are talking cars. There is absurdity and eccentricity aided by serious emotion. Just when you get used to the unexpected comes something that you are familiar with but it is disturbing because you did not expect it. It comes out of nowhere and it feels real. Oscar is a dying, wealthy old man making a tragic farewell to a woman who is herself at an ‘appointment’. Oscar gets out of bed while she sobs next to him. He talks to her and she talks to him and he leaves for another ‘appointment’. It is business after all. Lavant/Oscar becomes a hitman hired to kill his doppelganger and there is blood. He is a terrible father picking up an unhappy teenage daughter from a party.
He is the hero, of a thousand faces, a master of disguise, the trickster extraordinaire. He is setting up these elaborate scenes for watchers as his chilling, charismatic mustachioed boss reminds him before asking him ‘why does he do it’. “For the beauty of the gesture,” he replies.
He is getting old though. The signs are littered all over the place. Motifs of death and decay including actual death (a suicide at night) and decay (a formerly grand, now abandoned building) and a cemetery.
Is it then *gasp* using the cinema itself as a metaphor for the journey of life?
It is that, maybe, but it is also a marvellous movie. In one of my favourite segues, Monsieur Oscar is a grim leader of an accordion band performing in a candlelit church. Vivid, full of charm, varied, puzzling, deeply irritating. You will never see it reviewed as “a thrilling return to form with inspired performances from”. The director, Leos Carax stated in an interview with The Guardian that he regards Holy Motors as a science-fiction movie; a parable of human relationships in the internet age. It all started with those white limousines, which he saw as a neat symbol of the virtual world, in that they are rented by the hour; in that they want to be seen but won’t let you see in; in that they are like living in a bubble. In his own words, he was trying to describe the experience of being alive in the internet world, the several lives we lead, the fatigue of being oneself. He says that the answer is to reinvent oneself but at what cost? The eleven avatars that Denis Lavant dons, an existential experience. There is courage in that. There is flamboyance, enigma and uniqueness that cinema brings. There is history and the past. There is the beauty of the gesture.
Watch the official trailer, here: