Monday, December 3, 2012

Holy Motors

(Leos Carax, France/Germany, 2012)

M. Carax, it has been too long.  After the operatic but turbid Pola X, which approached a cinematic self-immolation and served as a kind of fuck-off to his career as filmmaker, Leos Carax has made only a few paltry shorts since 1999, the longest of which came packaged with the 2008 omnibus Tokyo!  Finally, after a long stint in the wilderness (when asked what he's been doing all that time, he usually offers some Gallic, stoic rumination on trying and failing to get films made, living life, reading, traveling, etc.) he is back at large, and the  firmament of cinema is suddenly brighter.  Holy Motors is best described as a trip - fast, funny, moving, formally audacious and not without moments of dizziness, the omnipresent risk of a catastrophic crash.   It's subject is cinema itself, but we have to keep in mind that this is Carax we're talking about, who is more than any other filmmaker heir to the Godardian lemma of Cinema=Life=Cinema.  Following that equation in one direction, it can be seen that Carax views cinema as a kind of skeleton key to life; a tool, almost holy in its powers, for examining and expressing all that life has (and doesn't have) to offer.  Looking through the other end of the camera, we see Life captured and fixed on film (or, in this case, stored as data on a hard drive), subject to the limits of the machine, imprisoned in the glass eye of the lens.  Carax's film astounds with its ambition; his frequently goofy, occasionally sublime, and usually caustic deployment of humor obscures this somewhat, but it needs to be stated he is interested in nothing less than the Alpha and Omega of modern life, in all of its opacity and ambiguity.  Which is not to say that he manages to squeeze all that stuff in there, although not for lack of trying.  In it's darker moments, there is a sense of desperation, a liminal madness that hints at some lingering despair, even as he exults in the joy of the artform.

But one never gets the sense that Carax, for all of his risk-taking, is not in complete control of his craft.  It's perhaps surprising that after being out of the game for so long, his instincts as a filmmaker are as sharp as ever; all I can say is, I'm glad he's been taking his vitamins.  Holy Motors is a mature work by a seasoned director.  He is no longer the incandescent upstart, but it is a relief and a joy that he has lost none of his edge, even as he has moved beyond the novelty of youth.   It's funny; there are even moments when Carax actually seems to be showing off.  Just when you think he's gone and thrown it out the window for a dose of gleeful irreverence (and often, there is a slight unwillingness on Carax's part to sit with the more sincere and self-serious moments; he has a tendency to undercut his more tender moments with little exclamations of slapstick or absurd humor) he comes back and drops some wonderfully moving dramatic gravitas on you.  He seems to be saying:  yes, I can show off with the camera as well as anybody, but I can also tug your heartstrings as hard as any Hollywood melodrama.   It would be churlish, I think, to begrudge Carax any of this, mostly because he's so fucking good; besides, there's nothing extraneous about any of these scenes.  They are part of the fabric of the film, seen as brief asides, over too quickly, beautiful and resonant but quickly fading, like a high string on a harp.

There's an argument that Carax plays a bit too fast and loose with his premises, that he doesn't quite earn the narrative and formal liberties he takes, but I don't buy it.  Holy Motors is as deeply felt and ingeniously conceived as anything Carax has ever made, and a strong contender for that coveted mantle of A Great Film.  It's true that Carax seems to steal a bit more than he earns; rather than be limited by the episodic structure he's chosen, he makes it work in his favor, tightening the action and shifting to the next scene before anything - an idea, a character, an image - overstays its welcome.  This velocity, if that's what it is, has long been a crucial weapon in Carax's arsenal.  If it makes things buzz by a little too quickly, it also contributes to a sense of exhaustion, a world-weariness that lies at the heart of the movie.  For all of its joys and exaltations of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema, it never fully transcends the sense of loss that seeps into the corners of the film.  But, if I read the film right, Carax is far from finished.  Here's hoping the next trip comes soon.

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