Purgatory: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part IV

Purgatory: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part IV  


Howard Adelman

Last night I had a dream. A very old and good friend and colleague with whom I was collaborating on a project sent me a large brown envelope. Within the envelope was a smaller brown envelope stuffed with papers relevant to our project. Attached to that envelope by a paper clip was a one-page letter he had written to another mutual friend who was the wife of another colleague. It was a letter expressing his love for her. I cannot recall what it said, but I saw that the letter was unsigned.

Now my friend – call him A1 – was a very happily married man whose wife I knew long before they met and married. Further, he was a person least likely to have an affair. Besides, why did he want me to know about it? Or was he even having an affair? The letter seemed more of an overture or an invitation than one addressed to someone with whom someone was having an affair. Perhaps he wanted me to dissuade him from taking such an initiative. But if so, why did he not talk to me directly about his infatuation?

Perhaps I was meant to discuss it, discretely of course, with his wife who was an even older friend. Suddenly, I realized I could not recall her name. I could not even picture her. Call her A-2. I was totally distressed that her name, her visage had all somehow disappeared from my brain. Try as I might, I could not bring either her face or her name up. The more I tried, the more the face and name of the wife of my other colleague, B2 and B1 respectively, kept coming up. Except they both did not come up. I could not remember the name or picture the face of my other colleague. This was now both preposterous and frightening.

Again, I tried and I tried to remember his name. I made an extraordinary effort to bring up his face in my mind’s eye. No luck. I just could not. Now I began to get worried, not so much any longer about my friend who was having or initiating an affair with the wife of another colleague, but with my own sanity. Perhaps I really was going senile. Perhaps I was developing Alzheimer’s, a diagnosis for my slipping memory that had just been squelched by more rigorous testing. Should I send my neurologist a letter outlining what had happened? Or should I contact my friend, who was also a neighbour, for coffee, tell him the dream and see what his interpretation was? After all, he was a psychiatrist and psychotherapist.

Just now, sitting at my desk and writing this, I must have fallen asleep and dreamt that I was having a phone conversation with my brother. I was talking and getting no response. “Are you there?” Silence. I repeated the question. No answer. Should I call him back? I hung up. I went to pick up the phone. I realized suddenly that I had been dreaming. What had this to do with the dream I was writing about?

I tried to recall the names and faces of both couples in my dream at the same time. I could not. I could now only remember the names and faces of A1 and A2. The names and faces of B1 and B2 had totally disappeared from my memory. I started to go through my personal phone directory on my desk. Then I went through my email lists which took a lot longer. I could find nothing. Maybe I imagined them. Maybe I imagined B1 and B2. But I was so sure they existed. Should I write my neurologist? Should I contact my friend the psychotherapist? I woke up and headed for the phone.

I was about to call my friend when I realized it had all been a dream. There was no B1 and B2. They were products of my imagination. But I was equally sure they were real. Just as I had done in my dream, I really went through my personal telephone directory. Then my email list, but not as tediously and extensively as in my dream. B1 and B2 had to be apparitions. Try as I might, I could not bring either to mind. And I tried. For as much as I became convinced that they had been invented by my imagination, I was sure they were real. I determined to phone my friend the psychotherapist later in the morning when I was sure he would be up. Instead, I wrote the dream down for by then I had figured out what it had been about.

I was planning to write about purgatory (and paradise) this morning. Purgatory is about the experience of doppelgängers, seeing doubles and experiencing look-alikes, doubles of living persons. That was what the fifth and sixth appointments had been about. The fourth was about the man driving around with his daughter in his red car and reprimanding her for hiding in the bathroom and not getting involved socially with others. The fifth had been the Chinese gangster mirror killing where the gangster goes to stab his look-alike in the neck and gets stabbed in the neck in turn. The sixth appointment had been about the balaclava assassin who killed a banker and then is killed by the banker’s bodyguards. Between 4 and 5, between the man riding around in the red car with his daughter and the first doppelgänger scenario of the Chinese gangster killing, we see the accordion scene. Between the fifth and sixth appointments, the ones that show two different doppelgänger scenarios, the scene we see is the one where the man with the Port Wine Stain sitting up front turns in the stretch limo to address Mr. O.

I will now elaborate on the fifth and sixth appointments in Holy Rollers. In Dante’s Divine Comedy in the opening of Canto I of the Purgatory segment, after leaving the turbulence of hell, Dante now promises to sing about the second region of purgatory, “In which the human spirit from sinful blot Is purg’d, and for ascent to heaven prepares.” An accordion is a portable calliope, sometimes called an autocalliope. In Greek mythology, Calliope is the beautiful-voiced head of all muses know for exceptional harmony of her voice who presides over eloquence and epic poetry. What is less known is that her lover was the war god, Aries. Further, her son was Orestes whom I wrote about briefly in yesterday’s blog.

So the interlude with the accordion-playing pied piper is intended to lift the “deadly gloom” of hell that now hung over the movie thus far.  And what does Carax then see and project on the screen? Mr. O.

I saw an old man standing by my side
Alone, so worthy of rev’rence in his look,
That ne’er from son to father more was ow’d.
Low down his beard and mix’d with hoary white
Descended, like his locks, which parting fell
Upon his breast in double fold. The beams
Of those four luminaries on his face
So brightly shone, and with such radiance clear
Deck’d it, that I beheld him as the sun.

We will be introduced to the equivalents of the four luminaries soon enough, each a polar reflection of the other when Mr. O once again emerged from the depths of his cave within the white stretch limousine.

To the right hand I turn’d, and fix’d my mind
On the’ other pole attentive, where I saw
Four stars ne’er seen before save by the ken
Of our first parents.

The four stars had come forth from the eternal prison house. What was that prison house from which the wounded and the wounders, the killed and the killers emerged? Again, the main figures are the distraction and the indirection in this world of magic. It is the blackness from which they emerge that counts. But, unlike Dante, there is no grace that can descend and redeem anyone anymore. The quest for liberty is but a chimera. The trip is wasted for there is no redemption.

The glitter in sullen Angèle’s hair, her mouth weighted with metal braces and her innocent and frightened face atop a pre-adolescent reed-like body, seems to offer no sense of a doppelgänger. But listen to how the scene with Angèle in the passenger seat and Mr. O driving her home from the party ends. She asks, “Will I be punished?” Is the reason for expecting punishment that she lied to her father or because she was frightened of growing up? Mr. O replies, “You will be punished; you will have to live with yourself.” The girl who fears gaiety, who hides in the bathroom of a dance party at an apartment in a high rise, who feels she is undesirable and compares herself to her best friend, the popular Sophie, who sincerely believes that boys do not like her, confesses that she would lie again since, “we’d both be happier.”

So there are two Angèles, the girl has the guts to lie to her father, the girl who is unafraid to tell her father that she would enter the realm of pretence once again to protect herself and him from disappointment and enable both to pursue the happiness that only the innocent can enjoy, she the cream puff and the girl whom we know will soon leave the world of the innocent and enter the purgatory of adulthood. Angèle, the pretender, the artificer who tells the truth will have to go home and live with the new emergent Angèle who will only be able to live in a world of artifice made by others. The Dame from heaven, she who descends for on high, from the virtue of the locked clean and tiled bathroom in a high-rise apartment building, can honestly say that,

I have display’d
Before him all the regions of the bad;
And purpose now those spirits to display,
That under thy command are purg’d from sin.

As Dante writes about the cave within the red car,

“This islet all around, there far beneath,
Where the wave beats it, on the oozy bed
Produces store of reeds. No other plant,
Cover’d with leaves, or harden’d in its stalk,
There lives, not bending to the water’s sway.
After, this way return not; but the sun
Will show you, that now rises, where to take
The mountain in its easiest ascent.”

Mr. O drives off and disappears into the darkness to meet up once again with his ever-present guide, Céline, and once again traverse first the empty plain of the streets of Paris and then rejoins the traffic of the night to re-emerge in a cathedral with an accordion to lead a band of other accordionists, a piccolo player and even a guitarist as they march ‘round in circles, ‘round those weighty pillars that still hold up an edifice, though empty, because it no longer offers any salvation. Unlike Dante, we now live in a world of make believe, but one without a mission. Music goes on and on in purgatory, but does not even have the advantage of Sisyphus, who at least can roll his boulder uphill, though down it will come as soon as the top is reached. Here and now, there is only travel in an endless vicious circle playing music into the night without even an audience to lull into a belief that there is even a mountain to climb. Mr. O and his preceptor will not encounter a winged angel shining bright emerging from the darkness of the night and will not bow down.

Mr. O now attends appointment 5 wherein Alex meets up with Théo. Is this doppelgänger played in both roles by Mr. O the American actor, Theo Alexander from the Greek film El Greco and the fantasy TV series, True Blood? Was Carax trying to show the world that he, and he alone, could bring Theo Alexander’s project, Love and Let Die back to life again? For we are now in the world of gangsters, of what I initially thought were Chinese rather than Italian Mafiosi. It may not matter. Both wear the same kind of droopy moustaches.

It is quite clear that Carax’s film is not a remake of the 2010 American movie, Holy Rollers, starring Jesse Eisenberg about Hasidic Jews serving as drug mules. Upon viewing Theo Alexander play the Greek Mafioso, Demetrios Stavros, in Chuck vs the Sausages, I now believe the scene is just a re-imaging of the confrontation in the docks, now set in a warehouse, between two bare-chested Greeks rather than Chinese or Italian Mafiosi. But, again, I doubt it matters.

The scene opens in a loading dock of a warehouse. The one gangster, upon being confronted, insists, “It was an accident.” He is stabbed. Mr. O removes his victim’s glasses, shaves his hair, takes a gold chain necklace identical to the one he is wearing and puts it around the neck of his victim then adds the same scars as he has and even puts his own running shoes on the motionless body. But the body evidently is not dead. It reaches for the knife and stabs his assailant in the neck precisely where he was stabbed and then falls back, presumably dead. Both gangsters lie on their backs bare-chested and clearly revealed as doppelgängers. But Mr. O, or is it Mr. O?, shakes himself and lurches from the warehouse into the rain and, after collapsing, is helped back into the stretch limo by Céline. After all, as in all burlesque, one can only move from place to place through limps and detours, through stumbling and staggering.

Surprised, Mr. O is greeted by a man sitting up front of that cave in the limo. He has a port wine stain almost identical to that of my cousin with whom I went to medical school. “Good evening Oscar; you did a good job tonight,” the man with the port wine stain pronounces. “How are you feeling?” he asks. “A bit tired,” Mr. O replies. The man says, “Some no longer believe in what you are doing.” Are we in the realm of sentimental nostalgia or exploring the ontology of the universe of good and evil? Or does it matter? For people who do not see the security cameras do not believe in them. Mr. O mournfully mutters, “I die every day.” “What makes you continue,” he is asked, but Mr. O’s presumed boss answers, “the beauty of the act is in the eye of the beholder.” But what if there is no beholder?

Paris is beautiful at night. Mr. O calls out to Céline to stop the car. He rifles through a box of guns, grabbing one. He puts on a red balaclava. Bare-chested again, he marches through the streets, confronts a well-dressed group at a table in a café and fires at point blank range into the face of a stranger identified only as a banker. Mr. O has slain his alter ego. He is indeed tired and seemingly cannot go on. The security guards from the rooftop reappear and, all firing at once, kill Mr. O. Céline breaks through the crowd, leans down and helps the bloodied Mr. O to his feet as she explains, “It was a mistake.” It was an accident. But nothing that takes place in this film is arbitrary, including the pronouncements depicting the events as arbitrary.

In purgatory we first have to learn to live with our dual being as we, entering maturity, discover our schizophrenic selves and do our best to kill off one of them, destroying the Other, the murderer, in the process.

Is Céline the bird of God, bringing rebirth after each appointment? But there is no path that will lead to the Mount. Each day I die, with only my devoted niece at my bedside to succour me. The seventh appointment. We are no longer in purgatory. Will it be the stage when action no longer concerns the living but the dead after one has passed through the long sequence of broken and diversified existence and gathered one’s being into one completed embodiment lifted out of the unrest of a life of chance and change into the peaceful realm? Will we be able to reach a level no longer irrational, no longer belonging to nature alone, but be able to do something, to assert ourselves and say who we are? Or are all acts merely the creation of a chimera?

Carax has metamorphosed and risen out of the ashes of his disastrous film, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf where he became a pariah as a movie director and no longer the enfant terrible of French cinema, the boy genius who made Boy Meets Girl, and then the widely acclaimed, and declaimed, Pola X.  After an absence of thirteen years, is Holy Motors the latest act of redemption? How can it be if the subject matter is the absence of redemption? Is the pleasure of watching it sufficient? Is the thrill and excitement of a wild roller coaster ride adequate?

As one critic wrote of the love scene in Mauvais Sang (1986), “Falling into a depressive exhaustion Anna (Binoche) mutters ‘nothing’s moving.’ In response Alex arbitrarily turns the radio dial, 1,2,3 and soon Bowie’s song provides the spark that will electrify his body and provide him with the force to kick-start the pulse of the world. What follows is surely one of the most exhilarating scenes in all of cinema. The medium at is most indescribable. A kind of ecstatic self-extinction that is also a race towards death.” After all, we don’t keep silent. It is silence that imprisons us all.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Paradise: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part V


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