Hell: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part III of a movie review

Hell: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part III of a movie review


Howard Adelman

I now want to move onto a deeper analysis of the film. First, superimpose on the structure of the movie the organization of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The year before filming began, Carax’s long time partner, Katerina Golubeya, died. The film, I believe, is not so much a search for personal redemption, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as much as it is a search in the afterlife of shadows and zombies for his lost partner, similar to a modern adaptation of Orpheus’ search for Eurydice, but with Carax using the tools of the actor, costume, makeup and performance instead of the gorgeous music that Orpheus played and that enthralled everyone on his trip through the underworld.  But it is Dante’s experience that is reproduced with a cinematic twenty-first century grammar.

My overall intention is to try to demonstrate that, in spite of the deliberately haphazard and seemingly purposelessness of every sequence and event in the movie, everything is very deliberate and planned in the same detail as the appointments that Mr. Oscar attends. After the opening scene in which Carax leaves his hotel room through a secret door in the wallpapered wall of trees and looks down on the theatre from the balcony upon the innocent and ignored toddler, the frozen emotionless audience and the bull mastiff in the aisle, we are introduced to Mr. Oscar (Mr. O) leaving his luxurious art deco mansion. A young pre-adolescent woman-child looks out a huge porthole window as Mr. O departs leaving behinds a sense of loss and something missing. We are aware of the lovely family of children and toys, with its parking area of expensive cars and with its rooftop security guards. Mr. O travels into Paris in a white stretch limo. In the first major division of the film, Mr. O enacts three very extreme scenes, especially the third one. They are parallel to the Hell section in Dante’s poem. Only afterwards does the movie gradually, and only relatively, become more calm and serene in stark contrast to the frenzy and energy of the first three appointments.

Sequence        Appointment#            My Title

I                                                           Theatre Sequence                    }

II                                                         Banker Leaving Mansion        } Prologue

III                    1.                                 Beggar                                     }

IV                    2.                                 Diode Dance                           } Hell                                             3.                              Green Man and the Model      }


VI                    4.                                 Father-Daughter in Red Car   }

VII                  Musical Interlude        Accordion                               }

VIII                 5.                                 Chinese Gangster Mirror         } Purgatory

Killing                         }

IX                                                        Limo Scene with man with     }

the Port Wine stain     }

X                     6.                                 Balaclava Assassin                  }

XI                    7.                                 Deathbed Scene                      }

XII                  8.                                 Eva and the Air Hostess         }

XIII                 9.                                 Family Man/Chimpanzees       } Paradise

XIV                                                     Chauffeur with the Mask;       }

Limos Going to Sleep         }

Both works offer a vision of the world of the dead, the afterlife for Dante and the world of the living dead that has taken over our daily lives in the here and now in the world according to Carax. In the first section of hell, we see scenes of enormous wealth and extreme poverty, choreographed violence and sex, and then both merged together culminating in the madness raging both below, in our cemeteries and our sewers.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy (DC) (the copy I use in English can be found at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8800/8800-h/8800-h.htm), we are taken on a trip through three different realms of the dead in a trip that lasts five days; in Holy Motors (HM), the trip takes place in one full day, including the evening. But the two creative works are identical as powerful expressions of poetic imaginations, one cast in verse and the other is cinematic scenes. Both are visionary artistic projects. They are also structured as comedies dealing with very weighty themes, but developed in ordinary verbal and cinematic language respectively. Both avoid lofty, especially pretentious, artistic grammars and modes of expression that such subjects supposedly deserve. Both are expressions of the vulgar emerging from a subterranean world of the imagination onto the streets of Florence and Paris. Both deal with redemption, but in HM we move away from being redeemed back to a realm in which humans are simply animals living in apartments in high rise buildings, whereas the road trip that Dante takes us on leads upwards to the heavens through a process of atonement.

While in the DC, we are guided through hell and purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil, but through paradise by the object of Dante’s unrequited courtly love, the adolescent Beatrice, in HM, there is only one guide, the elegant and somewhat bemused chauffeur, Céline. In the DC, there are nine circles of hell, 9 rings of Mount Purgatory crowned by the Garden of Eden, and 9 celestial bodies of Paradise. Cross-cutting these is Dante’s moral schematic of the seven deadly sins. The sins are expressed in hell, cleansed in purgatory and purged in paradise.  We will have to see if the three different sections of HM with their interludes might have a similar parallel structure.

Notice the outright parallels. HM begins with the scene of Carax in a hotel room next to an airport with one wall a wallpapered forest. A dog sleeps on the bed. Carax gets up, smokes an ever-present cigarette, dons dark glasses and passes by a mirrored door avoiding both looking at himself or going through the door. The DC begins with Dante at middle age lost in a dark and gloomy wood; he is mired in sin. But while the forest in the DC is wild and savage, filled with rough and robust growth, the forest in HM seems tame, orderly, as if a primal forest had been replanted, and, literally, only paper thin compared to Dante’s jungle. Mr. O possesses a round metal key that he wears on his finger that turns a secret lock and, with much effort, pushes open the secret door.

Dante is threatened first by a swift panther, then a hunger-mad lion and a finally a needy, thin and obviously hungry she-wolf. Carax enters the theatre through a secret door in the woodsy wallpapered wall and is indirectly threatened by a toddler (innocence), the human furthest away from being characterized as swift, a frozen emotionally famished and unresponsive audience akin to a lion waiting to pounce on whatever appears before it but absent any primitive instinct and purpose, and a mastiff, a dog akin to a she-wolf meandering down the aisle, but with any ferocious intent bred out of its genetic lineage.

While Dante stands at the foot of the mountain looking with dread and terror upward, Carax looks down on the theatre of life from a balcony. Dante is rescued by Virgil just as in the next segment Mr. O is now guided around town in a stretch white limo by Céline. Dante steps backwards into a lower space and encounters his first zombie, a dead man not yet buried; Carax has his own repertoire of encounters with the living dead.

Just as Céline will take Mr. O away from his secured domestic life and loving domesticity – bye daddy – and away from the business he conducts on the cell phone with Serge, as Céline guides Mr. O through the faded memories of movie scenes long gone and some buried in our memories, but remaining fearsome nonetheless, Dante first meets the dead Lombardian poet, Virgil, whose muse fixated on the son of Anchises, a cousin of King Priam of Troy. The beautiful Aphrodite fell in love with Anchises and together they had the son, Aeneas, who become the object of fixation of Virgil. From the lessons he learned in life, Virgil tells Dante that the path to redemption requires he go around the obstacles seen for he could not directly revisit that fearsome past even as he is haunted by the shrieks of tormented souls.

If hell is a trip through Christian sin in Dante, then the first three appointments of Mr. O as he proceeds on his deep and woody way are the beggar woman, the dancing violence and sexuality of the diodes and the beastly leprechaun; analogically, they should correspond in some way to the sins Dante encounters in hell. And they do. In Dante’s hell, there are three beasts: self-indulgence, violence and malice. In the beggar woman scene, the sin is not the unkempt ugly beggar woman in the costume that Mr. O assumes, but the sin is in the well and contemporarily-dressed self-possessed burghers who pass the beggar woman by and never drop a penny into her tin cup. After Mr. O appears in his light absorbing costume on a treadmill, then with a machine gun, and finally falls off when its speeds up too much, the dancing duo in their diodes attract and absorb all light in their sensuous acrobatic dance as they finally morph into intertwined serpents with fish tails. They offer an example of violent passion while the scene with the green mad satyr is entirely an exercise in malice without any forethought.

Thus, HM can be seen as a cinematic allegory, but one projected on the screen in the absence of faith. The movie can be viewed and interpreted literally, broadly and extensively in terms of what we see before us. The movie can be interpreted historically in terms of the vast number of references to the past history of cinema associated with each scene. The film can also be interpreted morally in terms of the different key values in contention at each stage. Finally, the movie can be interpreted analogically, a methodology prohibited in any ordinary rational legal system, but occupying the highest plane of interpretation in the realm of the imagination. Is the road trip that Mr. O and Céline take an exercise and a voyage of discovery of love, wisdom and virtue or, instead, is it dominated by opposites, by disgust and hatred, by an absence of intelligence and a total devotion to the aesthetic, and by a display of vice, even evil?  All the time, the words early in the film echo in our imagination: “Nothing makes us so alive as to see others dead.” And always, throughout, the inhaling of killer cigarettes.

We leave the opening scene of luxurious living and domestic bliss, of apprehended menace – in the limo, Mr. O says on his cell phone that his security guards will henceforth have to be armed. In the first appointment as we travel through a Paris imbued with death, we are repelled by the beggar woman’s ugliness, her bent posture, her dishevelled clothing and by the language that spews forth from her mouth as much by the contrast with Mr. O’s previous elegance and obvious wealth as by the figure we view.

“Nobody loves me.

I’m alone anyway.

I am so old.

I am afraid I’ll never die.”

In our imagination, her smell even repels us. In a perfect world, a city, from the perspective of purification, it should decree that none like this person may pass through its streets. What we view is indirection. For what is really and truly repulsive is the well-dressed men and women, the upright and uptight, who avert their eyes and pass by the beggar woman. From a lordly perspective, from the balcony of the theatre, the passer-bys are thrust into the background of our moral compass as we are mesmerized and repelled by the imagined filthy woman wearing rags rather than papal robes. She assails our basic fears. Here, but by the grace of God, could we find ourselves. Propelled by this fear, we, like the burghers governed by the motto, “Speak not of them, but look, and pass them by,” by the burghers who affirm their beliefs with their body language, it is we who avert our eyes, not from the beggar woman, but from the men and women of Paris who act out our fears.

To see the movie, the whole movie and not just the dramatic personae that perform before us, we must look at the whole screen and not be diverted into a myopic vision by the subject before our very eyes. In Paris, in this city of eternal pain and woe, should we seek justice and fairness as we travel among the lost souls that populate its avenues? Or are we travelling at a time when God is dead as well as the humans, at a time when wisdom and primeval love have been cast aside, but, hopefully, recovered in the final frames? To honestly go on this trip, all who travel this way must abandon hope as we pass the multitude of dead, of bodies without souls. Who would have imagined a city renowned for its beauty so wracked and despoiled by the death of so many? For not one has a name. Not one do we recognize.

Instead of the stereotype of a tribe of zombies that inhabit our horror films, we are confronted with well-dressed men and women who never lived at all, who dress up their nakedness in fancy duds, who plaster their cheeks and lips with makeup to disguise the bleeding wounds of the bees, wasps and hornets that  have driven them mad with their stings, as a mixture of blood and tears fall at their feet and dampen the earth of the worms who crawl there. And so Mr. O returns to his white stretch limo, to the cavernous interior converted to a dressing room, and dons his next costume, a rubber black suit with built-in diodes that absorb all light. He leaves the limo, climbs the outside metal fire escape, strides to the top level of an urban industrial plant possibly producing electricity, and enters a studio.

Where is the demonic Charon who mans the raft that will transport us across the River Styx into the theatre of eternal darkness where temperatures will soar to volcanic heights and crash down to icy melting glaciers as we remain unaffected, stirred only to shivers and sweaty brows, not by the weather, but by the fearsome creatures in our sight and what they say about ourselves? Instead we see an acrobat wearing a skin-tight costume implanted with the most primitive of electronic devices to gather electric energy into itself using anode and cathode oppositely charged poles.

And what an exhibition of energy. Mr O, the prim and proper banker, has transformed himself into the most athletic of artistes, stretching, tumbling, flipping, twirling instruments of death, and then mounting a treadmill, not going anywhere, but shooting more and faster at what we know not. It seems not to matter. Killing is all that counts. He can’t keep up to the world of mayhem and massacres and falls off the treadmill. Perhaps he has post-traumatic stress disorder. Seemingly, he cannot continue.

A female partner now appears, but in a red rather than black skin-tight suit with the same diodes. The electric charge is now externalized and driven by the internal energy in each. The dance of sex and death resumes in the most plastic, sinewy, slippery scene of sexuality you will ever see. He presses her breasts, kisses her cunt and the two intertwine in a sensuous transformation of violence into pure sexuality. The figure in red seemed to pronounce:

“Then I his alter’d hue perceiving, thus:
‘How may I speed, if thou yieldest to dread

who still art wont to comfort me in doubt?’”

So, energy renewed, move onward and downward still as they move upward whirling ‘round into heavenly apparitions of intertwining serpents with fishy tails that each other encircle, like new constellations in the darkened heavens above. Is this the sixth circle of hell which we have traversed? In the first circle with the old woman on the edge of the abyss of life, we heard her sighs that made the eternal air tremble, not from torture, but from grief as ordinary men and women, young and old of Paris, blameless all except for the fact that they are human-all-too-human and all suffer that defect. We are they, desire without hope, disbelievers all. We are then exposed to the next five circles of the different phases, the second, the diodic acrobat and then the third in his murderous mode.

The next three circles are formed by the duet of the dancing diodes. First the seduction, then the dance of death and finally the transposition into constellations in the starry sky above, no longer as humans, but as apparitions of a more serpentine and oceanic existence. The historic modes of non-sapient life pass us by as in a flash where all light is silent.

Finally we are transposed and transported by the white stretch limo into another setting where a barefoot green gnome-like leprechaun with a glass eye, a straggly goatee and hair astray as if on an old man who has tried to get his toast out with a butter knife only to have his hair electrified and cast adrift. He lifts a manhole and climbs into a sewer, passes a line of refugees as if on a track with all their belongings packed into baby carriages. The green deformed and apparently demented creature re-emerges from that subterranean world and races through the cobblestoned streets and a pathway in a park, knocks down pedestrians, including a blind man with a white cane. On his way he grabs bouquets of flowers and devours the petals on the run, spitting out what is not to his taste. In this demonic state, he arrives in a cemetery where a photo shoot is taking place of a model in a diaphanous gown posed against a marble marker of death and burial.

The fine, delicate, light, flimsy floating and filmy chiffon and gossamer gown on a feminine creature of extreme beauty is so at odds with the green costume of the cretinous half-wit who will assault her and carry her off. The dwarfed and deformed creature who mumbles and bumbles his indecipherable words also stands in sharp contrast with the nerdy, tall celebrity photographer in white shorts and shirt who, as he snaps his pictures, repeats and repeats, “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!” when his attention is brought to the beastly dwarf-like creation that has appeared in this scene of death and glamour.

Surprised, but also delighted, he sends his unwilling assistant, Julie, to request the creature’s cooperation in a new opportunistic photography session of beauty and the beast. As Julie, in fear and trembling, asks for the gnome’s cooperation, the cretin bites her fingers off. With blood flowing out of the sides of his mouth, he licks the armpit of the model, then places her over his shoulders and flees with her unprotesting body as the foolish photographer asks for his ancient vintage camera, continues snapping unconcerned with what has taken place, and now repeats over and over again, “Weird! Weird! Weird!”

The green leprechaun returns to the sewers with his prize captive over his shoulders. In the midst of the detritus of the subterranean cave, she sits passively beside him. But instead of a bestial sexual scene of beauty and the beast, the leprechaun cuts up the model’s diaphanous gown and converts it into a burka, a symbol of purity and untouchability. The Helen of Troy so loved by Paris has been transformed into inaccessibility. Fond desire has been transposed into repressed passion. Grace and the benign have been remodelled so that beauty has metamorphosed into the forbidden converted, not by a gentle heart, but a beastly and cruel force of nature. Gentle admiration has become possession, ownership and the hiding and disguising of that beauty by the hideous and homicidal sewer-troll. He eats the money in her purse as well as flowers as Denis Lavant performs his acts solely for “the beauty of the gesture.”  The repressed anger is, at one and the same time, absurdist and elegiac.

With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Purgatory


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