Holy split!

Not having time to review it here in full, two weeks ago I Tweeted about the hugely talented Australian director Andrew Dominick’s hyped hitmen caper Killing Them Softly, saying something pithy and eye-catching like, “Beware the four- and five-star reviews,” keen to posit a sincere counterbalance to the hype with a limb-balanced view that, beyond some smart dialogue, moodily derelict visuals and a nuanced turn by Brad Pitt, this is a fairly modest film that’s short and narratively underpowered, and perhaps not the dazzling, politically-charged Tarantino-esque epic-for-our-times it was being marketed as. You know, it’s a decent three-star movie. In my book. Which is the only book I’m writing.

At the end of the day, it’s just my opinion versus the opinions of most other critics, but I felt that anyone yet to pay good money to see it might, in fact, appreciate an alternative view. I was disappointed that it’s all over so fast, that so little actually happens, and that there isn’t much in the way of resolution. For all the newsreel that places it firmly in the US presidential election year of 2008, its ending is pretty facile, when it might have been profound. (When the credits suddenly rolled, I genuinely thought, “Is that it?”)

The reason I’m telling you this, is that one respondent on Twitter called me “conceited” for expressing my opinion. This seemed harsh. We are all entitled to an opinion, and everyone is a critic, albeit not necessarily a professional one. Since I had paid money to see Killing Them Softly at a cinema, as is my preference, I was not commenting as a critic, but as a punter. Nobody’s opinion is more important than anybody else’s, but to express your own is not conceited.

I am about to offer my opinion on another film that has picked up rave reviews from critics, Holy Motors. Peter Bradshaw, who I respect and like (and who gave Killing Them Softly five stars in the Guardian), gave Holy Motors five stars in the Guardian; Robbie Collin gave it five in the Telegraph; Nick de Semlyen gave it five in Empire, so that’s a broad waterfront. Now, it is a strange, oblique, difficult, experimental film, and was always going to divide opinion. My opinion is that it is preening, self-congrulatory rubbish. You may disagree with me.

I have no history with its writer-director Leos Carax, although I am aware that his Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was an artistic hit and commercial flop in the early 90s (“the French Heaven’s Gate“), and it nearly bankrupted him. (He has only made five features in just over 30 years, which lends his work a Malick-like cachet that it may, or may not, deserve. I don’t know.) I was all too aware that Holy Motors was a big splash at Cannes this year, and that it had Kylie Minogue in it, which – it being an art movie – seemed newsworthy.

Well, it does have Kylie in it. But it’s not vital that it does, other than she looks a bit like Jean Seberg with her Jean Seberg haircut, in the brief segment that she is in, and it seems that more than anything else Holy Motors is like a European Cinema exam. Those who have swooningly submitted to its admittedly colourful and stylish but unhinged charms seem to delight in its constant references to such giants of French cinema as Cocteau, Renoir, Buñuel, Godard and, most evidently, Leos Carax. I’m not enough of a scholar in any of these great auteurs to spot every nod and wink, but I get the picture. It’s a film about cinema, which also tips its hat to Chaplin, and Chaney … and to Georges Franju’s key 1960 horror film Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without A Face), in which Edith Scob wore an eerie facemask, and who, 50 years on, wears one in Holy Motors to make the debt as subtle as a big flashing neon sign.

I’m not against cinematic indulgence, or reflexivity, or in-jokes for cinephiles, although there can be something dryly academic about this kind of point-scoring. Not always: think of Pedro Almodóvar’s own playful update of Les yeux sans visage in La Piel que Habito (The Skin I Live In). It’s just that, well, I found the style, and the central performance by Carax muse Denis Lavant, irksome in the extreme. It’s not that I’m not clever enough to “get it”, just that I couldn’t get into it. It made me fidget. It frustrated me. Its undoubted audacity wasn’t enough.

There are amazing visual moments, such as the bit where Lavant’s mysterious, limo-bound master of disguise leads a brass band through a church, or when he dons a motion-capture bodysuit and performs an erotic tango with a lady, their movements transformed before our eyes into an alien animation; even some of the bits I hated, like Lavant’s transformation into the grunting “Monsieur Merde” who kidnaps Eva Mendes’ supermodel and shows her his erect penis in the sewer like a priapic Phantom of the Opera, had evocative visual merit. But I didn’t feel these added up to much.

There’s a journey, physically, and a series of episodes, that sort of join up to each other, but I felt as exhausted as Lavant’s latex-weathered clown by the end of the day and night over which the action takes place. And I won’t mention the humorous ending. Even people who are captivated by Holy Motors think the ending is a bit shit. It’s certainly an evocative spin around Paris, mostly by car, occasionally on foot, but the imagery seemed fashioned by blunt instrument, and unless you are a member of Carax’s club, you weren’t really welcomed with open arms.

That’s my opinion. It is an opinion that is mine. And what it is, too.

And yes, I know Buñuel was Spanish, but he had two French periods.

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3 thoughts on “Holy split!

  1. Eruditely put, Andrew. I have a similar ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ opinion about Holy Motors. I enjoy (good) subtitled films but this is the kind that makes it difficult to persuade others to do so regularly ie “if this is a 5 star film, what’s a 3 star like?”!

    The Anne Elk reference made me smile, by the way.

  2. It so nice to hear someone else say this, Mr Collins. I came to the emperor’s new clothes conclusion when I watched Holy Motors last night. Each segment in it has its own logic and there’s an undeniable visual appeal, but it’s not a cohesive whole.

    Whether there’s any meaning in it is debatable. People can find all kinds of meanings in just about anything from art house movies to summer blockbusters. As long as they don’t present their interpretations as fact, then that’s fine. Indeed, it’s a nice thought that every single one of us experiences art in our own unique way.

    Also, even if it’s meaningless, that could well be what the author intended. It could be that, like Marcel Duchamp putting a urinal in a gallery, the artist is questioning the nature of art itself (at least, that’s how I interpret it). So perhaps the foolish emperor, strutting through the streets naked, was in fact a bloody genius.

    Anyway, thanks for making me feel better about not really liking this film.

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