Following on from my last entry where I wrote that high-brow critics tend to be more glowing than is often deserved for many arthouse productions -- often the more obscure, the more glowing, this new film (his first for 13 years) from auteur Leos Carax is an interesting case in point. Premiered at this year's Cannes, it split its audience between two camps. There were those who thought it was a work of infinite genius and those whose boos echoed to the rafters. As a supposedly surreal movie-going experience and with its many references to cinema history, it sounded just my cup of tea, and off we went to see it. I find myself now schizophrenically split like the Cannes viewers, between thinking it is something more than remarkable and thinking it verges on being a pile of artificial twaddle.
For some historical background, Leos Carax is the pseudonym of Alexandre (Oscar) Dupont and is an anagram of Alex Oscar. Carax became an arthouse darling in his twenties with three films, all starring his alter ego (or perhaps alter id) Denis Lavant, playing a character called Alex in all of them:"Boy Meets Girl" (1984), "The Night is Young/Mauvais Sang" (1986), and "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf" (1991). This last film while completely absorbing came in well over budget and was a financial flop; Carax made no further films before the little-seen "Pola X" in 1999 (which did not star Lavant). That actor is back with a vengeance in Carax's fifth feature, here playing the remainder of the anagram, Monsieur Oscar, a protean character with no true reality that one can grasp; Carax gives us nearly two hours of visual fireworks with deliberately, I think, no discernible plot or purpose, other than to emphasize the truism that one man in his time plays many parts. Carax himself has said that the film is not telling a story nor narrating a life; it is merely showing us what it is like to be alive. Or something like that!!
M. Oscar is collected from his suburban home and family each morning by a stretch white limousine driven by the elegant and elder Celine, French movie icon Edith Scob (more of that later), who drives him to his various 'appointments' throughout the day. The limousine's roomy interior is a mobile dressing room where the athletic, muscular Lavant morphs into many different characters during the course of the day's 'work'. He moves from becoming a female street beggar, ignored by the passing throngs, to becoming a hired assassin to being an elderly man on his deathbed. At one stage he enters a film studio, dons a motion capture suit with lights and engages in a dance of virtual sex with a female partner before the pair dissolve into fantasy apparitions. The most outlandish of his guises is Monsieur Merde, a character reprised from Carax's brief segment in the 2008 portmanteau film "Tokyo!" Here Lavant becomes a grotesque underworld goblin with a glass eye, lanky hair, and filthy long fingernails, who terrorises a cemetery fashion shoot by eating flowers and licking armpits, before abducting the supermodel Eva Mendes and carrying her off to his lair where he dresses her in an billowing burqa. In contrast some of his other incarnations verge on the boring, including his scene telling a teenaged 'daughter' that she should be more aggressive to woo friends and a seemingly endless scene in a deserted department store where Kylie Minogue in a Jean Seberg wig warbles away before jumping to her death. At the end of the day M. Oscar goes back to his surburban villa where his family have become a pack of chimpanzees and the stretch limo retires to the Holy Motors garage where it chats with the other parked limos about their respective days, reminding the viewer of a twee kiddy fantasy.
A movie buff can have some fun picking out the various cinema references, influences, and homages other than the Jean Seberg wig, from the 1000 faces of Lon Chaney through the many Chaplinesque bits of business (falling off a treadmill, applying makeup a la "Limelight") through the several visual interludes featuring early cinematography capturing a man in motion. Some of these are subtle or subliminal, while others seem overly blatant. For example, at the film's end the elegant Celine wears an Alida Valli shiny trenchcoat and dons an opaque mask to remind us that she was the damaged daughter in "Eyes without a Face"/Les Yeux sans visage" (1960). Carax himself appears in the opening scene walking through a forested wall and emerging into a cinema (shades of Cocteau here) as if to announce 'this is my world of illusion'. At times the film seems like the story of the emperor's new clothes all pointless artifice, but at others, like during a musical accordion band interlude, it gives us an unexpected feeling of elation at the thought of being alive and sentient. When M. Oscar is asked why he carries on being Oscar, he replies that he does so 'for the beauty of the gesture'. It is this philosphy that underwrites Carax's talents for the audience that can see the forest for the trees, but this is far from an easy exercise.
It's London Film Festival time again, but a shorter programme than previous years. I shall only (ha-ha) be seeing eight or nine films during its ten-day span and shall report back about the best of these in the not too distant future.