Monday, November 19, 2012

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Leos Carax's Holy Motors, one of the standout releases of the year, reminds me another great recent picture, Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film. Panahi's (not a) film concerns a reaction to literal censorship, imposed by a theocratic dictatorship afraid of anything that might challenge their complete mental hold on the people. The barriers placed in front of Panahi's creativity are tangible: a prison sentence, an effective lifetime ban from filmmaking. Carax's work, on the other hand, comes after a 13-year dry spell between features, broken only by the occasional short. It is a reaction censorship figurative, not literal, with abstract obstacles of budget concerns and esoterica placed between the director and his drive.

Of course, the two are not equal, but then, Carax's response to the studio mothballing trades Panahi's open rage and sorrow for more muted, sarcastic cynicism. Of course, Carax also enjoys a place of privilege and thus channels his own frustrations into an elegy for all of cinema. Panahi declared his own work was not a film because of its format (and also, in fairness, a jab at authorities), but Holy Motors quivers with fears that, with the advent of digital and other new technology, no one will ever truly make a film again. This has the effect of inverting the usual dynamic of one of the director's films, in which escapist, pure cinema is grounded by a consideration of the consequences of breaking from society or form. Here, the invigorating reveries intrude upon the somber reflection, and if Panahi's un-film emerged as one of the great defenses of the artform's worth, so too does this latest in the calls for the Death of Cinema contradictorily energize the medium even as it pulls ever closer to its supposed death.

In essence, then, Holy Motors is one great magician's trick and con job rolled into one, and there can be no one alive better suited to pull off such a crowd-pleasing and -swindling act as Denis Lavant. Carax's primary on-screen avatar, Lavant enters the film through an enigmatic, fourth-wall breaking trip through a two-dimensional forest into a movie theater, but as odd as the sight is, the strangest aspect of it may be the actor's visible age. Unlike his director, Lavant has not disappeared for a decade, but when he stumbles his way to the theater, his slowed movements and slightly filled frame speak volumes for the time that has passed for the filmmaker who lives through him. Lavant's knotty face has always been lined with a false sense of age, but now his features are supplemented by actual wrinkles, and the actor looks sullen in his own, slightly sagging skin.

Perhaps that is why he spends so much of the film in other guises. By day, Lavant, as Monsieur Oscar, rides about town in a limousine driven by Céline (Édith Scob), receiving mysterious assignments that involve him donning various costumes, makeup and prosthetics in order to...well, that is not at all clear. When he dresses as an old, hunchbacked homeless woman and staggers to a corner to beg for change, what task could he possibly be fulfilling, and for whom? Likewise, one cannot help but be bewildered by Lavant reprising his Merde character from Carax's short in the anthology film Tokyo!, and that is before he abducts an ennui-frozen model (Eva Mendes) and secrets her to a sewer where he strips naked after converting her designer gown into a makeshift burqa. Is this a commentary on the objectifying nature of the fashion industry, which relies on women who fit a pre-set standards of beauty but then treats them as nothing more than mannequins? Is Merde, further robing the woman as he completely disrobes, also guilty of this? The most important question, though, is just what the hell is happening, anyway.

Almost immediately, Oscar's assignments come to resemble miniature performances and films in their own right. Occasionally, this connection is made even more explicit: an early vignette places Oscar in a motion-capture suit and has him perform moves in a vast, darkened room filled with infrared cameras to record his movements for later animation. Lavant's acrobatics come roaring back as he twirls and leaps, and the black room lightens with graphics as he runs on a treadmill, as if a hamster powering the whole room with his effort. Yet this scene also parades some of Carax's weariness, with Lavant occasionally stumbling and his incredible, dextrous movements (as well as his lascivious interplay with a mo-cap-suited woman who joins him) put toward a crude digital wireframe that lacks all the spark the actual people emit. Oscar voices this cynicism more openly when one of his bosses (Michel Piccoli) gets in the limo at one point to ask why his performances have lacked their usual vigor. "I miss the cameras," Oscar responds. "They used to be bigger than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now you can't see them at all." The last sentence suggests the nature of Oscar's work, and also that he may be as confounded at this point as the audience, as bewildered by his own actions with no visible watcher reassuring him that it is all an act. Oscar clearly wonders if there is a future in his line of work, and it is no coincidence that so many of his roles are elderly and infirm.

It is mournful stuff, yet Carax undermines his thesis at every turn by dint of his skill. The film's brief tours through characters and genres serves not as a visualization of cinema's life passing before its eyes but a constant series of rebirths that makes every sudden end to a sequence as revitalizing as alienating and insular. Carax's quasi-Luddite raging against new technology aside, even the gag of the rendered motion of Oscar and his female "co-star" speaks to cinema's ever-evolving means of showing an audience something new. Sure, the image of two strange beings wrapped in a programmed dance is less meaningful than the human movements that inform it, but Holy Motors lives for aesthetic pleasures for their own sake. Carax even cuts short the vignettes that threaten to become self-sufficient through their human impact, putting all stock into the joy of Lavant's Lon Chaney-esque donning of faces. And when Scob puts on a mask not unlike the one she wore in Eyes Without a Face, the film likewise celebrates even the occasionally glib satisfaction to be gained from postmodern reflexivity, placing among the various other ways films entertain us. A recurring image from the opening credits to the closing ones is a clip from a zoetrope, the once-novel trinket now a dated missing link in film's development. Presented without comment, the clip's meaning is clear: movies will never die, though they will not look as they did once upon a time. But neither, then, will people, as Lavant's face will attest. With this film, Carax proves that nothing can kill cinema, not even Carax.

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