The glory of Cannes—and of cinephilia in general, for that matter—is that you never know for sure from which direction the long-awaited lightning bolt will strike. Sure, I was plenty eager to see Holy Motors, having loved previous Leos Carax films like Mauvais sang (1986) and The Lovers on the Bridge (1991). But check the dates on those—it’s been over 20 years since the last Carax joint I loved, and apart from a short (if memorable) segment of the omnibus project Tokyo!, he hadn’t made a movie at all since 1999’s Pola X. So I don’t think anyone was quite prepared for the visionary, jaw-dropping spectacle that greeted us at Holy Motors’ first press screening last night—a work so sui generis, so vast in scope, and so meticulously realized that you can easily imagine Carax having spent every waking hour of the past 13 years working on it—and many non-waking hours to boot, given its dreamlike, surrealistic modus operandi. Ultimately, Holy Motors may prove too bugfuck to win the Palme d’Or, given that the jury is headed by Nanni Moretti and not Tim Burton (whose crew Palme’d the nearly-as-bizarre Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but I can almost guarantee that it’ll be the film by which this year’s festival will be remembered in years to come. Cannes exists to showcase such unexpected cliff-dives.
Actually, I should retract the sui generis part, because Holy Motors,in what’s surely just a strange coincidence, has a pronounced structural similarity to Cosmopolis,the David Cronenberg film (adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel) that screens here in a couple of days. Carax’s favorite actor, Denis Lavant, first appears emerging from a mansion, dapperly dressed, and entering an enormous stretch limousine, whose driver (Edith Scob) informs him that the file regarding his first appointment of the day is on the seat next to him. When the limo stops, he gets out dressed as an elderly bag lady, stooped and infirm, and spends some time begging for spare change on the street. This turns out to be just the first of numerous transformations, as this strange man—who’s sometimes called “Alex” and sometimes “Monsieur Oscar” (Carax’s real name is Alexandre Oscar Dupont)—proceeds to spend the next 24 hours scurrying all over town and briefly being everything from a teen girl’s loving but frustrated dad to an assassin who takes out his own doppelgänger. (I won’t spoil the crazily inspired conclusion of this scene, but it’s central to the film’s meaning. Let’s just say it’s an open question who gets back into the limo.)
None of these “assignments” is ever explained, though it’s suggested in a brief conversation with a shadowy boss figure (Michel Piccoli) that we’re seeing what amounts to the next evolution in entertainment, performed by actors who have no idea where the now-microscopic cameras are. But even that’s far more literal than this profoundly allusive movie wants to be, to its great credit. Holy Motors implies with its very title a reverence for the mechanical, which is to say the physical and tactile; a sequence involving motion-capture sex, while visually spectacular in its own right, gets pointedly contrasted with 19th-century cinematograph footage depicting athletic movements, and when Monsieur Oscar dons the “Merde” guise (from Carax’s Tokyo! contribution), he traipses through a cemetery on which every headstone urges mourners to visit the deceased’s website. Yet the film never feels like some Luddite scold—indeed, it’s a crazy-joyous experience, reaching its peak of euphoria during a fantastic entr’acte in which Lavant heads a marching street band featuring multiple accordions. Even at the very end, when you think Carax has provided a suitably lovely and melancholy finale, there turns out to be a fillip that had the normally staid press corps wildly cheering, and then another magical coda that refracts the movie’s themes through Scob’s performance in Georges Franju’s 1959 masterwork Eyes Without a Face before concluding on the most delightfully absurdist note imaginable. And I haven’t even mentioned the musical number sung by Kylie Minogue, or Eva Mendes as an model in a burqa singing a lullaby to a naked dude sporting a full-on boner (after he munches on her hair). Being part of the very first audience for Holy Motors was a privilege. This is why I come here. Grade: A
[SAD NERD ASIDE: Technically Holy Motors is an A- on my scale, at least on first viewing, but it seems even more goofy than usual to impose that on the A.V. Club, as my flat A is so rare that only maybe 6-7 films a decade get it. The only film I’ve loved more over the last several years is A Separation. Also, that I was smitten with Carax’s film even when I had no idea what the hell was going on retroactively sours me on Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, which no matter how coherent and provocative it may prove thematically just never engaged me at all on the surface level. So that now gets a testy D+. ]
For a while, I gotta say, Killing Them Softly seemed as if it might be just as momentous an event. Director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) opens his adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade with a severely alienating opening-credits sequence that assaults you with abrupt aural dropouts and cuts to black leader, and while the movie stars the likes of Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Richard Jenkins, it devotes its first 20 minutes or more to the electrifyingly scuzzy exploits of two lowlife crooks played by the relatively unknown Scoot McNairy (Monsters) and Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom). Like many crime stories, it’s entirely about the convoluted fallout from an initial heist, with Pitt as a steely but enormously pragmatic enforcer who’s been hired to take out not just McNairy and Mendelsohn, who rob a big-time poker game, but the wholly innocent guy (Ray Liotta) who people will mistakenly assume was involved. And Dominik somehow maintains a paradoxical tone in which every scene is at once intensely heightened and utterly realistic—the stick-up, in particular, makes armed-robbery scenes in most other movies look false by comparison, without sacrificing tension. Really, everything about Killing Them Softly is terrific except that Dominik lays his sociopolitical “subtext” on with a trowel, setting the film during the 2008 election and bombarding you with pointed sound bites from Obama and Bush regarding the financial crisis. The final lines of dialogue are a completely undisguised thesis statement, to the point where you could rewrite them as a question rather than a statement and have your first entry in the film’s classroom study guide. Genre exercises that are really stealth critiques of American mores are fine and dandy, but please, let us do at least a little bit of the interpretive work ourselves. Grade: B-
My next screening looms, so very quickly: Takashi Miike’s For Love’s Sake, playing here as a midnight movie,may or may not be his first musical since 2001’s The Happiness of the Katakuris—I can’t be sure because the dude makes three films a year on average and I can only keep up with about half of his output. And it’s a pretty good musical, too, with catchy songs, inventive choreography, and what seems at first to be an appropriately simple plot about a ludicrously good-hearted schoolgirl who’ll submit to any degradation in order to save the soul of the bad boy she loves. For some reason, though, Miike felt this trifle needed to be two hours and 17 minutes long, so the second half spins its wheels on a needlessly complicated gang-war scenario that resembles his adaptations of the Crows Zero manga series. The musical numbers become more and more infrequent, lots of generic violence ensues, and the film loses some of its initial charm. But even bloated Miike is often a hoot. Grade: B-
Tomorrow: I made a judgment call some of you may question and opted to skip On the Road (an adaptation of the Kerouac novel starring Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart; I can see it later) to catch Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film in nine years. But the real excitement for me is the new one from Carlos Reygadas, whose Silent Light ranks alongside Holy Motors in my annals of Great Cannes Experiences.