Paradise: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part V

Paradise: Holy Motors and The Divine Comedy – Part V final instalment


Howard Adelman

By this time, after spending so many words on one film, on a film that my youngest son urged me to watch, a film that both intrigued me, but was one which I definitely did not enjoy, readers may wonder why I have spent so much time on this cinematic work. That is, if I have any readers left. Who wants to read about a movie at such interminable length, especially if the person writing about the movie did not enjoy it? And I did not. I said immediately afterwards that the reason I did not like the film was because I hated roller coaster rides. They make me nauseous. This film made me nauseous. But there were other reasons as well for my disliking such a brilliant work as Holy Motors, which I will get to.

I remember when I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea (La Nausée) when I was an undergraduate intensely trying to catch up on my supreme ignorance of the history of western culture. Sartre was so proud of that novel. It was written in the year I was born (1938) so, in my sick sense of humour, I used to joke that it was written to honour my birth. Further, though I was neither a historian (the protagonist in the novel if I recall correctly) nor a philosopher at the time, I could identify with the main character, not because things and even everything around me and everything that was happening made me feel that they infringed on my very being, that, in a word, made me recognize that I was not God or even a god or even a narcissistic monster because things already existed and had not been created by me.  Rather, to a minor degree, the hero could have been me. At that time in my life, I hated if anyone, or almost anyone, touched me. I had enormous struggles over my sexual proclivities, dressing it up as a form of Puritanism. I now believe that my condition at the time had a minor overlap with a form of autism.

To think that Sartre was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature mostly for this novel alone drives me to distraction. Do not believe Simone de Beauvoir, who extolled its brilliance. She was biased. In spite of her lauded feminism, and her own even greater brilliance, she was really a doormat for Sartre. The thinking in the novel was pedestrian. And the way it was written, at least as translated in English, was pretentious. I have not reread it since, so this may just have been an initial reaction of an ignorant undergraduate. But when I was an undergraduate, it was already a classic of existentialism, and existentialism was all the rage at the time, at least of so-called avant-garde intellectuals. And how could I be anything but avant-garde even if I was unwilling, though also clearly unable, to claim a place in the intellectual pantheon. So I completed reading the novel in spite of my negative reaction to it. Sartre may have been really playing the court jester, but I ended up feeling that I was the fool as he insisted (contrary to Hegel) that the development of self-consciousness had neither order nor structure.

I can give another example to illustrate why I have paid so much attention to this movie other than wanting to offer an explanation of my reaction to my son who loved it. This illustration also comes from my undergraduate years. I wrote an essay on T.S. Eliot for an English course. In my first test in English, I received sixteen out of a hundred. It was a good thing that test did not count for my final mark. It was a test to find out how much I knew at the time about the history of English literature. I had never heard of Chaucer or Dante or Milton and a host of other stars in the pantheon of world literature.

The essay on Eliot was written for my second course in English literature on a poet and a poem on which the professor was an acknowledged expert. In my essay on The Wasteland, I wrote that the poem was brilliantly crafted, but that I not only disliked it, but thought that it did not even meet the standards of poetry that Eliot had set forth in his essays. The fact that Eliot was also anti-Semitic was not incidental to my distaste but, I argued, was integral to my reason for judging the poem the way I did.

I made my assessment based on reading every essay of Elliot’s that I could find. (In my megalomania and extreme ignorance, I thought I had read all of them.) I also read much of his other poetry and offered a meticulous analysis in a very amateurish way of The Wasteland, trying to explain why it did not come near to competing in quality with Prufrock which I had loved. The professor gave me an A++ at a time when being rewarded with an A was a rarity. I have admired the professionalism of true academics ever since because he absolutely loved Eliot’s poetry.

Holy Motors is a brilliant film. I have tried to indicate why this is so. It is so layered and textured, so rich and so intriguing, so expertly crafted and enacted. But it is important to indicate and explicate why I did not like it. And this comes out mostly in the last three appointments which, next to the segment focused on the sewer gnome dressed in green, are possibly, each in its own right, some of the most brilliant parts of the movie.

My critique is not based on the absence of any logic in the movie. Take just one trite example, the scene of the father in the red car driving his daughter home from a party in the fourth appointment of the evening. Yet there are five appointments still to come. And in the second to last one, Céline insists it is very late; it is almost midnight. The time line does not make sense and is not meant to make sense. After all, this is absurdist theatre. One does not expect a Picasso painting to conform to the norms of realistic depictions of objects. Why impose such a restriction on this movie?


But I did not enjoy or even like the film. Why? The answer is simple. There is no redemption in the movie. The film is indisputably brilliant. The acting, the costuming, the writing, the directing are all superb. Now the radical contrast. The Divine Comedy’s third section ends with bliss, with two bodies joined through which one discovers the union of the corporeal and the divine. Dante may have lost Beatrice, the adolescent love of his life, but in Paradise they are reunited. The reunions that take place in the last three appointments of Mr. O are radically other.

The sixth appointment begins with Mr. O greeted by the doorman as Monsieur Vadon. I am not able to interpret the reason for using this name. Mr. O is now dressed in pajamas, slippers and a trench coat leaving the stretch limo to enter a very luxurious hotel and a very luxurious suite in that hotel. In that suite, he goes to the wall to open a door that blends into the decor and reminds the viewer of the secret door in the wallpaper of trees in the opening sequence of the movie. (Scenes in the film now resonate more with earlier scenes in the movie rather than earlier films in the history of cinema.) Through the door is another room that reminds the viewer once again of the opening scene. It is a simple, far less ornate room. Again, a dog is sleeping on the bed, but it is a black dog. And the bed is not one of a twin set but a larger bed. We are not in this earlier room. We are in a room where a man sleeps alone.

Mr. O carefully puffs up his pillow and crawls under the cover to lie on his back. The light on his side table stays on. The room seems to light up. We hear orchestral music. A mysterious woman appears. She is beautiful in a beatific way. She has a club foot and limps. The dialogue is strange.

“I forbid you to lie.”

“You shouldn’t have done it Theo,” presumably referring to the Theo of an earlier segment.

“I have a plan to go mad.”

Mr. O now appears so much older. The woman who comes to his bedside is evidently his niece. She is now in black, having taken off her white dress in which she first appeared and let her hair fall loose. She looks beautiful enough to be Dante’s Beatrice. But this is not Beatrice. Léa, as she is called, is referred to as an angel beside his bed, and this is taken as more than just an expression of endearment of a dying uncle to his heart-broken niece dealing with her uncle’s final hours. Is this Antigone before her uncle was slain? I think not.

“This is not death,” Léa insists. She could be in denial, but she seems so grieved at her uncle’s condition that the viewer is both convinced that her dear uncle really is about to die and that she is grievously stricken. Then the recollections. “We did something once.” “I would die if I had not loved you.” “In life there is love.” So the mourning is not just about an immanent corporeal death, but the loss of what life is really about, the love between two people. Instead of a recovery of love in paradise, the film is a melancholic ode to the death of love. It is also a reference to errors, even sin and punishment. Just as the daughter in the scene with the red car was to be punished, the niece is said to have been punished for her wish.  What was that wish? She wanted her uncle to be happy. She wanted to be near him. By then one is convinced that he was not a real uncle.  A “rich uncle,” to use a euphemism? A sugar daddy.

Léa does not want her uncle to suffer. But that very grievous desire to end his suffering is itself a cause of the suffering. For he is not suffering because he has a physical disease. He is suffering for the loss of his life, his entire wasted life. The tenderness, the touching, the weeping, the sorrow, the sense of regret for a mistake once made – all are conveyed in sensitive detail. Mr. Vador was not only loved but adored. Then once again something strange happens. Mr. O as Mr. Vador gets out of bed. Though tired, he is no longer the dying man on his death bed. He puts on his bathrobe and his slippers and begins to leave the room. He turns back to comfort his so-called niece still crouched beside the bed and weeping into her folded arms.

Mr. O says to her, “Sorry I can’t stay. I have to get to another appointment. I hope we meet again.” Léa introduces herself as Élise and says she too has another appointment. Mr. O leaves with a briskness in his step, but is now regularly coughing, perhaps from smoking so much. He re-enters his limo and confesses to Céline that he is very, very tired. She insists that the next will be his last appointment, but there will, in fact, be two more to come. Mr. O complains that he got a cold killing the banker. He turns on the simulacrum of a fireplace in the back of the limo.

The next scenario is one of the most interesting in the movie, not nearly as emotionally moving as the previous one, but more romantic, more intriguing in a segment packed with every cliché one has ever seen in a romantic film. There is an altercation between two stretch white limos. Céline gets out of her car enraged at the other driver. Mr. O recognizes the lady in the back of the other limo. Mr. O gets out to talk to her. They know each other. She is willing to spend time with him, but has only 30 minutes. Mr. O insists she come with him.

The limos are stopped in front of La Samaritaine, a renowned luxury department store in the First Arrondisement of Paris. In the film, the store has been abandoned and it is to be gutted and reconstructed as a luxury hotel. Reputation, iconic status and classic beauty are of no help in a society which destroys, consumes and feeds on its own heritage. As the two wander hand in hand up the grand central staircase and around the floors surrounding the atrium, broken parts of mannequins are strewn everywhere. Eva says she is now working as an air hostess and says she misses Mr. O. She also tells Mr. O that he was so mean to her and that her partner is due to arrive for a rendezvous in 20 minutes. They have so much to catch up on. As they hold hands, she says, “We may never see each other again.” At one point, Mr. O lifts her up and carries her up the broad staircase as if he is crossing the threshold of their home after having been married.

It is not a tale of unrequited but of lost love. Suddenly, Élise bursts into song. And she sings in English as if either to exaggerate the oddness of the situation or to suggest that she was an English airline stewardess. But her name is unequivocally French! “Strange feeling.” “There was a child.” “We once had a child.” The situation reeks of regret and remorse far more than mere nostalgia. As a full orchestra rises, she sings, “Lovers are turned into monsters.” The story is an archetypal remnant from romance films.

By now the two are on the roof overlooking the beauty and romance of Paris itself. He lights a cigarette. “There’s something you don’t know about us.” “Time is against us.” They are about to part. “He (presumably her current partner) will be here soon.” “Better we don’t…” They wave goodbye. Élise takes off her trench coat. She is wearing the uniform of an airline stewardess. She climbs over the balustrade behind the huge store sign, La Samaritaine. There are no good Samaritans anymore. They are obsolete. No one offers himself for another as an expression of true rather than romantic love. In the meanwhile, Mr. O just manages to dodge her partner who is running up the stairs looking for Élise. He hides behind a post until the partner passes. As he hurries outside and down the street he passes the bleeding corpses of two bodies that have fallen from above.  He re-enters the limo. Céline insists that Mr. O has to eat.

It’s nearly midnight. Mr. O insists that, “We have to laugh before midnight.” They banter back and forth about the long day discussing crime and pain, other lives as they discuss the suffering characteristic of life. Mr. O asks Céline if there were any pictures. Suddenly, a pigeon almost flies into the windshield of the limo and Céline temporarily loses control of the vehicle. When she recovers both her control and composure, they both burst into laughter. After all, a pigeon is a very determined survivor, a creature that will continue to live in an urban mess as long as there is food there. It has survived the whole march of civilization. One of the domesticated animals, like dogs, that live alongside humans, but, unlike a dog, it is not regarded as man’s best friend. Rather it is seen as a pest, as dirty, leaving its droppings everywhere. But it can always find its way home.

It is still before midnight; there is still one more appointment. Maybe we will run into the pigeon’s cousin, the dove, the symbol of peace, of love, of understanding and sensitivity. In reality, if you put two doves in a cage, one will peck the other to death.

The limo resumes its journey. They are now in a suburb of Paris. Mr. O gets out and offers Céline a tender kiss goodbye. Or goodnight. He lights his customary cigarette, the one continuous symbol of death and dying running like a thread through the movie. He would like to live again but that would mean imitating Sisyphus, not Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but reliving the exact same thing. Yet, in spite of it all, by heaven’s leave he would still opt to live again even though he long ago passed the point of no return when he left his childhood behind. We’d like to live. We’d like to love again even though love and life are both a charade.

Oh, to be able to start again. But it cannot be. There is no second chance. There is no salvation from the life lived. There is no resurrection. There is no paradise. This is not Dante’s Divine Comedy. The burlesque we have watched is just a human-all-too-human comedy.

Mr. O as Mr. Suburban enters his town house identical to every other town house on the street and we see through the window an image of domestic bliss as he greets his wife and daughter who are both chimpanzees. The limo ends the film as it, along with a score of other limos, returns through the gates of Holy Motors to be parked. Céline gets out of the limo, takes off her wig, shakes her hair free and leaves the parking garage. That is when the limos, as in a children’s movie, start to talk to one another, their lights flashing as they speak. They fear they are obsolete, that they are used up, that they will end up on the scrap heap of history.

Lights out. Fin.


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