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Flash Festival Review, 6-19: Midnight a Paris pour le vrais
Road Trips that don't leave the city at Anthology Film Archives
(Updated to include reviews of two films by Abbas Kiarostami)

A scene from Leos Carax's 2012 "Holy Motors." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

Leos Carax's 2012 "Holy Motors," which opens June 19 at Anthology Film Archives as part of its Auto-Cinema series running through June 25, is a tour-de-force of directing, writing, and acting on a level with Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and Wim Wenders's "Wings of Desire" as a film which captures the angst of its time, a haunting gaze into the abyss which terminates with the narrowest of escape hatches. It's a morbid landscape whose eloquent depiction makes it ultimately more beautiful than bleak. Juxtaposed with David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis," also released last year and opening at Anthology Wednesday, it also provides an actor's lesson in the difference between compassion and cynicism and between empathy and alienation, and a cinephile's lesson in the difference between contemporary French and American directors.

Oscar (Carax regular Denis Lavant, in a virtuoso turn), is an actor who makes house calls, his book of appointments -- to which he's ferried all over Paris and environs in a limousine / dressing room piloted by a svelte and proper middle-aged driver (Edith Scob) -- made up of little scenes in which he plays a modern stock-house full of characters, most of them terminal in one way or another, all of them enacted in very specific universes: Slipping a vermillion ski mask over his head, he suddenly orders Celine to stop outside of Fouquet's, the emblematic restaurant of France's ruling economic and political class (French president Nicolas Sarkozy held his election-night victory party there in 2007, immediately alienating his popular supporters), accusing a patron on the terrace of being a banker before shooting him in the head. Attired in babushka regalia, he stoops his back and begs for alms on the Alexander Bridge over the Seine, that regal symbol of pre-Revolutionary Francophile Russian extravagance, built by Tsar Alexander. When he dons a fedora and transfers from the white limo to a nondescript compact car to pick up his pre-teen daughter (a sulking Jeanne Disson) from her first party, we think that it's finally the real person taking a break from his acting duties to discharge family responsibilities, until he quickly catches her in a lie and decrees that her punishment will be "to be yourself," and we realize it's just another fictive drama.

The film's apex -- and its graduation from simple dark passage to parable of modern Paris -- arrives when Oscar fortuitously encounters a fellow mobile actor, Jeanne (Kylie Minogue, the Australian pop sensation and a darling of the French), who he hasn't seen for two decades. With 20 minutes to catch up on 20 years, they wander into the shuttered Samaritaine department store, that former democratic symbol that bourgeois comfort could be accessible to all, closed several years ago after it was deemed structurally unsound ("they're gutting it to turn it into a luxury hotel," Jean muses, reminding us how Paris is becoming one more big city for the rich), making their way among dismembered mannequins, in yet another reiteration of the sepulchral theme, echoed even in the crags of Lavant's wizened face, up the ornate staircases and to the roof, which offers one of the best views of Paris. Being Kylie Minogue, she of course has to break into song (more reminiscent of her mournful duet "The Wild Rose" with Nick Cave for his Murder Ballads than her '80s pop trifles), in this case evidently a theme song for the film, mooning about, "Who were we?" before he leaves and she removes her jacket to reveal a stewardess's outfit, takes off her shoes, and climbs out on the barrier overlooking the city. When Oscar emerges to find her splattered on the pavement, his retching on the way back to the limo makes us wonder for a moment if this was just another scene, or if she's really dead.

Indeed, the verisimilitude of Oscar's scenes -- always climactic -- is so jarring and disturbing that we're thankful when another Carax regular, Michel Piccoli, he of the Godard pedigree, shows up mid-film, emerging from the recesses of the limousine to observe, "Some among us think you're a little tired lately; some don't believe what they see." Oscar explains (perhaps reflecting the director's view?) that "I miss the cameras; they used to be bigger than us; then they became smaller than our heads, and now we can't see them at all." It's a message echoed in the epilogue, when the limousine is returned to its hangar called "Holy Motors," and a fellow vehicle frets out loud that they will soon become obsolete: "Men don't want visible machines any more." In the face of this impending contraction of the automation which was supposed to liberate man from work but has also freed him from the necessity of human contact, Leos Carax has given us a sanguine reminder of the beauty in even the perils of human interaction, one which ends on a note of hope that echoes Kubrik's in "2001: A Space Odyssey," as Oscar concludes his day by coming home to a household where his wife and children are (literally) apes.

If you think I've spoiled "Holy Motors" for you by sharing these high-points, don't worry; I've only touched on the most apparent dimensions which reach me on a first viewing. Unlike many recent cinema portrayals of the City of Light, this one is multi-faceted, a real depiction of Paris at midnight, the existential midnight of a dark night of the soul, one which shadows many of the city's denizens.

"Holy Motors" plays June 19 at 9 p.m., June 22 at 4:30, and June 24 at 6:45.


Robert Pattinson in David Kronenberg's 2012 "Cosmopolis." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

One of Juliette Binoche's breakthrough roles was chez Carax, alongside Lavant and Piccoli in his 1986 "Mauvaise Sang," a dark (and early AIDS) drama to which she lent beauty and innocence. These days Binoche seems to be less picky about her collaborators, and she's hit a new low with David Kronenberg's 2012 "Cosmopolis," also opening Wednesday at Anthology as part of the same series. She makes her entrance being entered from behind in the back-seat of a limousine by the one-dimensional protagonist, a techno-businessman bloodlessly interpreted by Robert Pattinson. Based on Don DeLillo's 2002 novel, this is another snide Hollywood literati swipe at Wall Street peopled with cardboard cut-outs and hackneyed dialogue (which the actors seem to be more reciting than communicating to each other) that seems more like clever, deliberated writing than something real people would actually say impromptu, such as:

"I'm a world citizen with a New York pair of balls."

"Any assault on the borders of perception is going to seem rash at first."

"Does she let you touch her personal parts?" (This last uttered by Binoche as she caresses her lover's ankle from a prone position on the limousine's floor; this is what I call the "it's more palatable to embarrass yourself if it's not your mother tongue" effect.) Cronenberg thus manages to earn two of Joe Bob Briggs's disaccolades in one fell sweep: This is what I'd call gratuitous Juliette Binoche *and* Bimbo-fu.


In contrast with the manipulative Kronenberg, who doesn't leave the viewer much collaborative maneuvering room, Abbas Kiarostami, in the 1997 "Taste of Cherry," also part of the series, offers lots of mental and landscape open spaces for the audience to reflect and reach its own conclusions. The premise is simple: Kiarostami follows a middle-aged driver as he tours the semi-rural, mountainous outskirts of Tehran in his Range Rover, looking to hire someone to either retrieve him (if he fails) or bury him from a hole in which he plans to kill himself. "You'll call out my name," he tells potential helpers, "and if I answer, you'll come and get me. If I don't, you'll heap 20 spade-fulls of dirt on me." As practical-minded as the man may seem -- he quickly gets to the point in separate attempts to hire a young soldier from Kurdistan and a seminary student from Afghanistan, before finally finding an older man who makes his living killing quail to be stuffed and mounted at the natural history museum who agrees to assist him -- in fact his search also plays as one last effort to connect with humankind before it's too late. An Afghan refugee guarding a cement mixer at a lonely outpost makes him tea and offers to share his omelette. The man who kills quail, trying to dissuade him despite that he could use the money to care for an ailing child, tells him, "The people on the other side would like to take a look here, and you want to rush there!" He recounts how he once had the same idea, until a mulberry propitiously intervened by falling on his head; he tasted it, it was sweet, and in lieu of committing suicide, he gathered up more to bring home to his wife.

"A Taste of Cherry" plays June 21 at 7 p.m. and June 23 at 4. Also part of Anthology's Auto-Cinema series, at 9:15 p.m. June 21 and 2 June 23, is the director's 2002 "10," which follows a chic divorcee and six successive passengers as they drive through Tehran, including her 10-year-old son, providing an unexpected perspective on male-female relations in Iran. Both movies should be required viewing for any Americans who see Iran as the enemy. I have met the enemy, and they are just like us.


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