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.


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

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, 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

Holy Motors II – a movie review

Holy Motors – Part II: a movie review


Howard Adelman

I wrote about one film called Youth which was about youth in old age. Yesterday I introduced you to Carax’s movie, Holy Motors, which is about youth even in death, about energetic, creative vigour even when the objects of study are long dead but unburied creatures of cinema that are resurrected for the occasion. How can a movie take you on such a dizzying ride through the imagination, delivering electric shock after electric shock? How can a movie so deliberately disorderly actually offer a sense of order? How can a film that re-imagines the imagination itself with such wild exuberance, how can we be taken on a such a wild ride through both the psyche and cinematic lore, how can a movie with such aesthetic abandon be so mesmerizing, yet make me regret going on the ride?

The answer, in a phrase, is that it is the wildest, most terrifying amusement park ride I have ever been on or could even imagine when even the simplest amusement park ride makes me ill and dizzy. I do not drink alcohol. I do not take drugs. Intoxication scares the death out of me. As does weirdness. As do most dreams. But if you can go along for the trip (in its various senses) of a lifetime, if you love chameleon shape-shifting, watch this film on Netflix. If you have already taken the ride, or if you fear wild and terrifying playing with your imagination and will not see this movie, then you can read on as I explore the details of that ride as best I can recreate them in the relatively serene medium of print. On the other hand, if you are a zombie looking for resurrection, if you want to experience a wide range of human experience within one day compressed into two hours, then see the movie and do not bother with this review.

I begin with the ordering of the episodes.

Sequence         Appointment               My Title


I                                                           Theatre Sequence

II                                                         Banker Leaving Mansion

III                    1.                                 Beggar

IV                    2.                                 Diode Dance

V                      3.                                Green Man and the Model

VI                    4.                                 Father-Daughter in Red Car

VII                  Musical Interlude        Accordion

VIII                 5.                                 Chinese Gangster Mirror 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 and Chimpanzees

XIV                                                     Chauffeur with mask;

Limos Going to Sleep

I have already discussed the first two sequences above in my previous blog as Carax re-emerges from his hermetic withdrawal from the cinema to re-enter the world of theatricality, and then introduced you to a classic scene of wealth and opulence, privilege and serenity before taking you outside the safety of the fantasy life of a stretch limo into the underworld of the imagination. So I begin, not with the wild parts of the ride, but with those sections that are no less imaginative, but which are more akin to the lower and level parts of a roller coaster before the cars climb another steep incline. The rest of the trip will be totally harrowing so we must first stare rawest sex and death, eros and thanatos, directly in the face, with only the relief of self-deprecating humour and an ounce of whimsy to water down the strong drink. So we have the so-called “realist” sequences:

VI                    4.                                 Father-Daughter in Red Car

XI                    7.                                 Deathbed Scene


XIII                 9.                                 Family Man and Chimpanzees.

The latter begins in a naturalist or realist narrative and ends in fantasy.

The father-daughter vignette in the red car is a seemingly simple tale in which Monsieur Oscar (M. O) dons the persona of a father who picks up his daughter from a party and then remonstrates her for her unwillingness to socialize. He promises her that she will be punished for her failure. Just keep in mind that in the third scene above, near the end of the movie, that begins in naturalism, a father returns home to a domestic scene, but one in which the daughter as well as the mother turn out in one last wry animistic antic joke to be chimpanzees. But before we reach the final incline upwards of a restoration to the Planet of the Apes as a domestic scene, we must be carried at rocket speed through the past. In writing, it is best to begin that ride when the roller coaster cars are moving relatively slowly.

One psychoanalytic interpretation of the social practice of producing nuns for the Catholic Church is that this is a device for a father to keep and effectively “marry” his virgin daughter. The girl in the father-daughter sequence is pre-puberty. However, the father is NOT evidently trying to keep his daughter Angèle (Jeanne Disson), for himself, but to get her out into the world, in spite of the portrayal of the world out there as one of poverty, murder and mayhem, and, even more worrying, a reality totally captured and transformed by cinema. In a classic tempo of interruption that allows the anticipation and excitement to be more intense, as we travel through a most basic form of love, that between a father and a daughter, just when an adolescent girl must first face her fears of love and lust, of intimacy and being dumped down a side of a cliff, instead of finding a father trying to inhibit the experience, slow the motion of the film in a futile effort to protect his daughter, we have an inversion. It is the father who pushes the daughter to scream and become hysterical and the daughter who cringes in a bathroom in understandable enormous fear of the terrors of the world outside she is about to face.

I take this scene as the first appointment to dissect, because the young pre-teen playing the girl is Carax’s daughter. The movie is a reversal because the daughter fears and rebels against being a sacrificial lamb for the purpose of advancing the imagined life of cinema. Further, rather than the father desiring to keep his daughter a virgin, it is the daughter who tries to freeze her relationship with her father. But the costs are perhaps even greater than in the alternative surrealist scenario.

Is this Monsieur Oscar (M. O) momentarily out of character? In this scene where he collects his daughter from a party and drives her home, is he taking a break from his assignments to perform a family task? He does tell her that he’s been working on assignments all day, and this is the only time we see him driving a car instead of being driven. On the other hand, he’s wearing a wig, so this is probably just another performance, albeit one that is considerably more down-to-earth than some of his others. His daughter initially claims that she enjoyed the party, danced with some boys, drank and smoked. Her father forces the confession that in reality she hid in the bathroom while her friend had all the fun. In the process of interrogation, the father reduces his daughter to tears that fall into her lap.

His vicious and withering punishment is to tell her that “she will have to live with herself” after shoving a cream bun in her face. This use of a sweet offers a bitter twist on the rebellious teenager trope, with a father disgusted at his child’s failure to misbehave. The focus on faces, and the darkness around them, helps to keep the compositions uncluttered, uncomfortably close and intimate. For me, this was the most emotional scene in the whole movie. Other segments show full bodies and some grotesque or dramatic transformations. This domestic drama plays out with each conversant facing forward. We can pick out their inner thoughts from their nuanced expressions: he lets rip with his disdain; she stoically bears the burden of his disappointment.

It’s a heartbreaking moment that could have been sliced out of an entirely separate film. It’s also about performance at some level – the daughter tries and fails to put on an act for her dad. He sees right through it and mocks its inadequacy. Meanwhile, we have to presume that this is M. O in character again, but more than ever, we wonder for what audience this might be. Is anyone watching this intimate scene play out in close-up? M. O says he wants the truth, but his daughter is wiser and more cynical: she agrees that she would lie to him again if she knew he wouldn’t find out. “We’d both be happier.” What started as a stock scene between father and daughter has ended as a lesson in deception. Next time, she will improve her performance, and maybe succeed in fooling her father.

The previous two scenes had been first a rich performance off impoverishment and then an even more surrealist scene of absurdist dance of sexuality and violence in which the effort is to consume and destroy beauty, not to enact it. Suddenly, in the father-daughter scene, we are in a situation depicting a real bond of love, but one, as it were, perceived through an inverted lens. For, on the one hand, the actress playing the daughter, who in reality is the daughter of the director, acts as if M. O is really her father. But the performance in the car reveals a father devoted to a daughter, but in a way opposite to anything we would expect.

Things are there, but only cinema can see them for what they are. In other words, it measures itself to their unstable, disorderly, relative, and unintelligible nature. Real presence requires shifting toward the figurative; the phenomenon – a face, a river, a speed – must be recovered from the perspective of its strangeness. And this strangeness does not refer to a mystery, to something dark and shameful […] but to an essential alteration, to the profoundly unidentifiable and impure dimension of things that cinema detects, welcomes, and develops. Strangeness does not stem from an enigmatic lining of the real but from an “excess of obvious facts.” (Nicole Brenez in Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, p. 236)

The other realist scene in the movie is the one where M. O plays a man in a hotel room lying on his death bed. He is being tended/attended by his niece, Léa (Élise L’Homeau). The scene is very emotional in a different way than the scene depicted above because we know we are watching a performance. When the uncle dies, the niece breaks down into uncontrollable sobs. But surprise. M. O gets out of bed to get dressed and go to another appointment.  Léa, who has stopped crying and is totally composed, introduces herself to M. O as Élise and informs him that she too has to run to her own next appointment. The scene ends with a quip.

If the father-daughter scene in the red car was an inversion of the incest trope, of the dedication of a father to the chastity of his daughter, this scene takes us to the end of life as itself a performance, an acting out of the pain of the other as one dies and one’s own eagerness to welcome death as a relief. The one who is dying wants only an escape from life; the bereaved experience its suffering as pain. But it is a niece, not a daughter lest we confuse the emotions involved in the controls put on incest with the asexual experience of death itself.

The first harrowing scene is tolerable for it only deals with an upright wealthy man of position and posture transformed via makeup and costuming within the stretch limo into a bent-over old beggar woman dressed in rags with a cup held out, but with not one of the dressed-up burghers dropping a coin into her tin cup. This is followed by a diode dance of delight and sexuality, of grace and motion, of simulation and symmetry, where the dancers are not so much under a spotlight as centres of light themselves as they are dressed in motion-arresting suits with reflective sensors that lock in beams of light. The energy of light, the source of becoming rather than being, dynamism itself, is captured and trapped in various frames. What are those frames? They are ones that adumbrate the movie as a whole.

Only then are we transformed with hurricane force from the vignette of class difference and of sexual bonding into the wildest exhibition and expression of the exuberance of physical energy that marries the grotesque to grace and carries the film onto a whole new plane at a much lower subterranean level in which a satyr-like figure in green, a wild leprechaun that reminds me of Donald Sutherland as a student playing Stephano in a Hart House student production at the University of Toronto of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Whereas Stephano was a boisterous buffoon who is both naïve and wily when he partners with a court jester and Caliban to commit murder, the subterranean bare-footed and bare-chested red-headed half-blind leprechaun with wild, red hair and long filthy fingernails that emerges from the sewers (see Léos Carax’s short portmanteau film Merde in Tokyo! 2008) is a figure not raised up to be a lord, but raises himself up out of the lower depths to attack everything, particularly beauty in the world, consuming flowers that he has snatched as he runs wild through the streets and arrives at a cemetery where an advertising photographic shoot is underway.

The beautiful supermodel, Eva Mendes, as a Kate Moss, is posing, with a totally expressionless face that never loses its mask-like emotionless qualities, against a tombstone. Harry T. Bone, a hairy t-bone in white shorts and white ankle socks, is repeating, “Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful,” but when the goddess Kay is grabbed by the satyr-like figure, Bone can only utter “Weird! Weird! Weird!” as he obsessively keeps snapping one picture after another with an old fashioned camera that replaced the modern one with which he was photographing the model against the tombstone. The leprechaun carries her off on his shoulders back to his underground lair.

As in Antonini’s Blow-Up, advertising photography turns into art, but only when the weird devours the beautiful and the focus shifts from fashion to the freak. In the underground world, statuesque beauty is undressed and redressed as a Muslim in a burka as the gnome removes all her notions – her purse and her jewels, her money and even her hair, which he eats. Who needs a hajib then! The naked gnome with an erection lies across the prostrate former model as the two are romantically showered with the petals of snatched and stolen flowers. The beauty of the act has replaced the face of beauty.

The memory of Donald Sutherland in that role almost sixty years ago was reproduced not simply because Stephano and the green figure in Holy Motors even look similar, for their only similarity seems to be their satyr-like characteristics, but because in each production the actor we see on stage or on the screen transforms himself right before our eyes. Stephano becomes a lord and master in his bearing and his posture. M. O becomes an underground figure of rage. Shakespeare’s Stephano, as interpreted by Donald Sutherland, grew in front of us in the audience from a bent-over quirky and shy fellow into a persona posturing like a ruling aristocrat. Perhaps his own experience as a sickly child with not only rheumatic fever and hepatitis, but polio, allowed him to understand how to transform oneself from an object of sympathy to a reigning actor. I suspect, but cannot recall for certain, whether in that 1957-58 season at Hart House, Donald Sutherland also played John, the witch boy in the Howard Richardson and William Berney play, Dark of the Moon who falls in love with Barbara Allen (“The Ballad of Barbara Allen”) and then is transformed into a human. The gnarled and deformed creature from the sewers with his voracious appetite in Holy Motors ends up going in the other direction, both devouring and abducting the world of beauty.

By this third appointment anyone watching the film has to become mesmerized by the freewheeling but very precise execution and magical, even acrobatic, performance of Denis Lavant, though, if like me, also almost nauseous from the wild romantic ride. The combination of poetry and precociousness with hideous repulsiveness, executed with all the artistry of a professional, steeped in the tradition of Teatro del Arte combining mime, movement and magic, stood in sharp contrast to either the verbiage of the theatre of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde or that of the angry young playwrights of post-war Britain and my own writing at the time.

After the more measured and conversational tone, even as the content was inverted, of the father-daughter conversation in the red car, we are offered a formal interlude of accordion players led by M. O playing the Mississippi guitarist R. L. Burnside’s blues song, “Let My Baby Ride” with its repetitious refrain of love as a form of evil and horror::

Love be the devil but it won’t get me
Let my baby ride
Gonna, let my baby ride.

It is the counterpoint to the earlier tune, O.V. Wright’s mischievous, “Don’t Let My Baby Ride,” for instead of stopping his daughter, instead of being trapped by love into a death embrace, M. O lets his daughter go, insists she must go, that she must ride out life on her own just as he, having been so many men and having no identity himself, knows he must release her from the deadly embrace of fatherly love.

Immediately after, we are thrust once more into a House of Mirrors, first with M. O as a Chinese gangster who goes to murder a man identical to himself and, in the process, after stabbing the man in the neck and carving up his face, he in turn is stabbed in the neck and then drags himself back to the limo. In the next mirror appointment, number 6, M. O dons a balaklava and this time shoots a banker that looks identical to himself and is a reprise of the banker at the beginning of the film and then is himself killed by the banker’s bodyguards that we saw in that early segment. He manages to get back to the limo with the help of Céline. This leads into the next appointment, the niece-uncle deathbed scene described above. Between the two mirror murders, a man with a port wine birthmark, sits in the passenger seat of the limo and urges M.O to continue his work even though M. O insists he is very tired. Further, M. O can no longer understand the business of movie acting when the cameras have disappeared from view and he only acts because of his enchantment with the beauty of the act itself.

At the end of the second mirror killing and the third death of M. O as an old uncle in a death bed, there is only one appointment left before the final appointment when the father returns to his ordinary home where his wife and daughter turn out to be chimpanzees when we are back from the human world of performance to the more basic foundation of humanity in the animal kingdom. In that second to last appointment, M. O meets an air stewardess, Eva Grace/Jean (Kylie Minogue) dressed in a trench coat borrowed from a film noir in a closed and empty department store, La Samaritaine, not only preserved and reproduced from one in an earlier film, Lovers on the Bridge, but where M. O acts as anything but a Samaritan, for the world of good deeds has nothing more to give but emptiness, hollowness and death. The air stewardess travels from the roof on her last flight with her lover to the street below as M. O whisks past the corpses.

The film at one level is a revelation of cinema as a copycat craft, empty of all meaning, as merely an arbitrary exercise in Theatre of the Absurd and an assemblage of performative art pieces focused on the actor’s body. After all, a character, a persona, was once, in Latin, the name of a theatrical mask. That persona accompanied with makeup and costumes set in a specific time and place are all used to establish the relationship between the performer and the audience.

Recall the ending of Part I in which, in the last segment, Céline dons a light purple plastic smooth mask in which only the eyes can be seen. (Recall also Georges Franju’s 1960 film Les yeux sans visage.) The face of the film becomes the mask, the masque, the masca, the nightmare, spectre and even witch. The result is an illogical work in which existence appears to be only a performance without meaning or purpose based on scenes which seemingly lack any sense of order. I will try to show on Sunday that the movie Holy Motors is not merely that, in fact, but a replay, one viewed through Carax’s inverted vision, of a divine plot viewed through devilish eyes. I believe the film has a very definite order and interpretation of the most basic elements of existence. After all, it is no accident that the song in La Samaritaine produced as if we were in a Broadway show is sung by the group, The Divine Comedy.


With the assistance of Alex Zisman

Holy Motors: Part I – a movie review

Holy Motors – Part I: a movie review


Howard Adelman

WARNING: This review consists of recounting images that may spoil the movie for you.

For a film that is so full of cinematic precedents, this 2012 movie that I saw on Netflix is unprecedented and unclassifiable. Horror, comedy, sentimental, social commentary, drama, romance, gangland, aesthetic – one can go on and on. It is truly a movie about Holy Rollers – oh, I meant to type Holy Motors, or did I? For what is obsolete is preserved, raised up and put away (aufgehobt, from the verb aufgehoben) and placed on sacred mount. The stretch limousines in Holy Motors are put to sleep for the night in the Holy Motors garage for limousines just after they have a conversation about their obsolescence and even extinction. The film is about one day and evening in the life of one specific stretch limousine with one specific chauffeur and one actor.

A stretch limousine is used as a hearse to carry bodies to the cemetery or crematorium and to transport the family of the deceased to the side of the grave. So it is a vehicle closely associated with death. But it is also the transportation of choice for the super-rich and those with high status – movie stars. Look at the use of the stretch limo in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis where the hyper-kinetic life of the wealthy fantasy makers of Wall Street reveals itself to be the flip side of the coin where that life is associated with mortality, with what is well past its due date.

Literally, a stretch limousine is a holy roller, not a sacred holy of holies with a fixed place marking the centre of the civilized universe, but a vehicle in constant movement from the early morning hours to late in the evening. While we are awake, we are in the realm of movement, of activity, of a divine presence that reeks of both elegance and mystery. For the windows are always tinted, enabling those inside to see out, but not the reverse. The inner sanctum is a place of power and status. When a couple on their first prom date or a couple just married emerge from a stretch limo, they descend from the realm of romance to everyday life. Stretch limos smell of wealth, of luxury, of ostentation, of power. The chauffeur, the bondsman in the symbiotic relation, is in a separate compartment from the master. However, in the stretch limo in Holy Motors, it is the chauffeur who gives the passenger his assignments and keeps him on schedule.

Holy Motors came out in 2012, the same year as Cosmopolis, so the two films could not have influenced one another. While the stretch limo is a central feature in both movies, each film uses the vehicle in opposite ways. In Cosmopolis, various individuals throughout the film enter the vehicle. In Holy Motors, one individual emerges from the vehicle in various guises. Cosmopolis is about that power and wealth and control that the limo symbolizes. Holy Motors is about a wide variety of challenges to this worship of power through letting the imagination run wild in a variety of different creations. In Cosmopolis, the hero/villain is out to command the future as well as everything current. Holy Motors is about the past, for the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk. In Holy Motors, the main protagonist engages in a dance of death as he gradually exhausts himself in an array of shape shifting forms. Cosmopolis is about unmasking the metaphysical foundations of the Great Crash of 2008; Holy Motors is about what it means to don a mask.

If Cosmopolis is about an individual’s quest for power, the scenes in Holy Motors are themselves almost always very powerful as each in turn drains the energy of the protagonist. I awoke this morning with one image after the other battling each another for attention inside my head and not just from the movie. For a film about precedents, the director insisted that he didn’t “see it as a film about references.” And, of course, it isn’t. For although packed with reverberations of cinematic memories, that is NOT what the film is about. So rather than hunt down the sources for the myriad number of images, I will only refer to some when they throw light on the meaning of an episode and I cannot get the associated image out of my mind anymore than the original from this movie.

film begins, according to many reviewers, when a very well-dressed older gentleman comes out of his mansion, says goodbye to his young daughter and, instead of entering the black SUV parked in his circular driveway, walks past it. The men standing beside the black SUV in dark suits get in and that car starts to follow him. As we see other men on the rooftop of his mansion, we wonder if this is a very rich man going for a walk, but being followed by guards just as his large home is being protected by armed men on its roof. Is he a very wealthy gangland boss? But he is dressed impeccably, like a Parisian banker. But perhaps the director intended that we in the audience perceive the two roles as one.

Then we are introduced to a very long white stretch limousine. The rear door is opened by the chauffeur and our well-dressed financial czar (or mobster?) steps into the back. But we have already been taken aback. This is not what was supposed to happen. For the person who greets the gentleman as Mister Oscar (played by Denis Lavant, pretty well a constant in all the director’s films and, obviously, an enormous talent), the chauffeur who opens the door, is a well-dressed uniformed woman, Céline (Édith Scob). But why any surprise? After all, this is 2015.

When Mr. Oscar settles into the back seat, he engages in a number of phone calls so seemingly confirming he is a wealthy banker or business man. But then everything changes. He opens a folder and asks his chauffeur/assistant the location of his first appointment. Suddenly, the back of the limousine turns into a make-up room, and, as we soon learn, a costume change room. Mr. Oscar emerges from the stretch limo in the next sequence is a radically changed form.

This is a movie that in one scene after another recalls cinematic history by a director, Leos Carax, an anagram of Oscar and Alex, the first name of the Director, Alex Christophe Dupont. Carax is an amalgam of the real person with a real name and a construct of the movie world, Alex. Carax insists that he is not a cinephile. But the references are recognizable, and there are too many of them that we easily recognize. In this movie, we keep being jarred to attention as each vignette – termed “appointments” in the movie – contains one or more divergence that distract us as well as shake our memories to attention. In fact, the whole movie could be said to be an exercise in distraction and redirection. That is, if anything at all can be said about the film as a whole.

But that is not even how the movie begins. The “real” beginning acts as a prolegomena to tell us that this movie is not just about one day and evening in the life of the chauffeur, Céline and the man she drives around Paris, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) – or, as we are led to question later in the movie, was that beginning not just another vignette in the film, a pre-appointment as it were? For the movie started before that scene of the mansion, the guards, the banker entering the stretch limo, the female chauffeur borrowed as an extra from a James Bond film, and certainly any of the appointments.

The actual movie begins in a hotel room, and not a very fancy one, but one that reeks of age and nostalgia. Or is it a hotel – perhaps only an old apartment? What hotel permits a dog to sleep on the bed? The Sleeper (played by Carax himself) wakes up and the viewer doesn’t know whether he is really awake or walking in his sleep or dreaming that he is walking in his sleep. But he does appear to be awake. Since the character is played by Carax himself, is the movie about himself, a director/actor who has been, like Rip Van Winkle, the paradigm of the imagination colonizing everyday life? Carax was asleep for thirteen years, not twenty, put perhaps he regarded his last productions as products of an imagination that had gone to sleep. Stupefied, he suddenly wakes up to once again re-enter the magical imaginative world of the cinema in which enormous changes have taken place over the past decade or two. Are we going to watch an updated version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a story I repeatedly told my children when there was thunder and lightning outside.

But it is a lonely return. Carax, as he looks down on the audience from an upper balcony, is totally alone even though the theatre is packed. The audience is totally passive, reversing the situation of Sleepy Hollow where the phlegmatic Dutch had turned into activist Yankees. This will not be Cosmopolis, a movie about the Yankee preference for change and wealth and power, and their loss, but about the costs of the transformation. The dozing dog in the hotel room or the apartment, like Rip Van Winkle’s Wolf, is left behind as the main character will now be replaced by an actor like Joseph Jefferson who performed Rip Van Winkle for 45 years.

Why is Carax so tentative, so hesitant, seemingly so lacking in confidence, since his movies of the late eighties and nineties were significant artistic successes? There is a hidden door in the wallpapered wall of trees. Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in a birch forest in the Catskills. The Sleeper magically finds the hidden door, just as magically comes up with the key and opens the door. He is in a passageway and enters a theatre where we see the uniform frozen audience looking as if it is waiting for the movie or play or opera to start. I noticed that not one member of the audience had popcorn.

Then a very large dog, a black bull mastiff, the size of a small pony, meanders down the aisle. A mastiff, one of the oldest breeds of dogs, is rarely seen around anymore. Is cinema, at least movies made on film, as obsolete as the old non-digital projection of celluloid films, as obsolete as the old comedic silent films of Buster Keaton who went from being a janitor and a projectionist and entered the screen itself in a memorable dream sequence to become a character in the film? Now it has all been reversed. The characters on screen leave the celluloid world to become part of real life that they have now colonized. Or is this a rebirth of the new life of the cinema in which everyday life in Paris has become a colony of the imagination? Has the man in the balcony metamorphosed into the toddler in the aisle? Who is the child who cannot walk through the mirror but is already on the other side looking out through a porthole?

But perhaps the movie is not about these wild exercises of the imagination – not nearly so wild when you recall the precedents – but a commentary on movies as a genre of art, as a genre of watching images reflected on the cave wall. Or, at least, not merely about the images as about what imaging and viewing images is itself about in an age when the camera can be hidden, when the spectator can remain unseen and remote. Humans have reverted from being active but damned Yankee citizens of a new Republic and have become passive subjects once again, but of a new empire of the imagination. Has Carax taken us back into Plato’s cave where immobilized people captured and tied to a log on which they sit watch shadows projected on the wall with a concentrated gaze and unable to take their eyes off the screen to see the wider world? Or is the movie really about a cinema reborn where everyone in the audience is his or her own director, where the real movie is not the one you watch on the screen, but the one you replay with your mind’s eye? We are no longer passive witnesses but active consumers.

In a next-to-final scene, Edith Scob, the chauffeur, when she is leaving the parking garage (Holy Motors) for stretch limousines before they all go to sleep, puts on a mask replicating the same scene she played in George Franjin’s Eyes Without a Mask. This is a very appropriate ending, even though the director insisted the choice was totally arbitrary. As she puts on the mask, Edith says, “I’m coming home.” How can the choice of that scene be arbitrary when the movie is all about unmasking the masks and roles we act out? Is it not appropriate that a movie about unmasking of masks ends with the only continuing actor playing a single part now putting on her mask just before she presumably resumes her real life?

And we know the director is being playful, is playing with us and suggesting that all of life is indeed a play because, when Edith leaves the parking garage, Holy Motors Parking Garage, that is such a standard setting for so many films because a parking garage is not made for people to live in, but does exist as a place in which people will die. Or, at the very least, secrets will be revealed as in Pakula’s 1976 cinematic take in All the President’s Men of the Watergate Affair in Washington. In the parking garage, when Bob Woodward, The Washington Post journalist, meets the mysterious Deep Throat, his informant, later revealed to be Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI, leaks the secrets and unmasks the nefarious activities that President Nixon had been up to while Felt himself remained a great secret for decades. Thus, does art imitate life and life imitate art?

But this isn’t a snuff movie or a spy movie or a gangland action thriller, but a playful comedy. Nor is it an action movie – envision Fast and Furious  or Steve McQueen in Bullitt – with car chases and crashes as automobiles race through the streets of Paris as in Ronin. Numerous cars are not destroyed in this movie. They are just parked for the night safely in a garage and engage in small talk before they go to sleep. These huge gas guzzlers fear they will be sent to a limo cemetery. As the stretch limos talk, their lights flash on and off in synch with their words. They are finally going to sleep for the night and this dormitory for limos finally goes silent when someone calls, “Lights out!” or the equivalent. A world has come to an end.

What a contrast with the movie itself that goes from one surprise to another as the main character shapeshifts from one episode to the next, using the back of the limo as his dressing room. Cinema is a form of popular entertainment that allows each viewer to slip into the skin of one of the characters in the movie. In this film, the main character himself slips into the skin and the costume of the character he will play in that episode.

My son, the filmmaker, the one who highly recommended Holy Motors, wrestles with the question of whether audiences and viewers spending their time creating and imagining themselves as different characters, an exercise exacerbated by the internet and social media, are not surrendering the possibility of self-determination, the possibility of determining how we act, on what basis and for what purpose. This mirrors Carax’s concern with freedom and self-determination and his conviction that, in the contemporary era of videogames, TV series, and action and hero films, we are not all falling into the trap of playing a role at the cost of our individual freedom of self determination.

Is there an alternative to becoming the post-modernist message of that media? Does a filmmaker not contribute to the problem of the media serving to enable people to shed one skin and assume another, and to do this even more so on the internet and on social media? Are we being reduced to passive actors in a globalized play? Or are we re-experiencing life as youngsters with playful imaginations, thereby bringing joy to the world through a wide variety of exercises of the imagination?

Instead of distracting, but mesmerizing car chases, which provide a stretch to our imagination that takes it in the direction of destruction. Leos Carax throughout the film takes us back to our lives as children when we imagine ourselves as anyone, even as any thing. One large mechanical instrument is both the carrier of death and the vehicle for recreating ourselves into the fictions of our own imagination. That is the only way I could make sense of the child in the aisle of the theatre at the beginning of the movie, even though making sense is counter-intuitive to the experience of the film. And in the end, these all have been children’s stories about, “Where the wild (and not so wild) things are” before we become the stretch limos who talk a bit before being hushed and sent off to the world of sleep.

In The Premature Burial, Edgar Allen Poe’s ode to the phantasmagoria, he wrote that when themes are too horrible even for the purposes of legitimate fiction, when we are living through a period in which audiences thrill with intense pleasurable pain as they are abandoned in space, cast adrift in a frozen earth, left abandoned on an island, and, even worse, subjected to a catalogue of human misery replete with human suffering and disaster and partially forced to live through a segment of the Holocaust or of the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, when we are thrust into apocalyptic calamities or thrown into world wars on a galactic scale, when truth is far worse than the imagination can ever portray, to what purpose can we put the imagination? Must our inventive imagination be cast into the dustbin of history?