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Hark, Behold, Watch: Holy Motors Creates the Cinema History It Laments

Unclassifiable, expansive, and breathtaking, Holy Motors, the first feature-length film from Leos Carax since Pola X (1999)—and only his fifth in 28 years—received a log line of sorts from its writer-director at the press conference following the movie’s world premiere at Cannes. “This is a film about a man and the experience of being alive,” the journo-averse auteur finally said after swatting down one obtuse plea after another to explain “what it all meant.” (I was there.) The statement, initially coming across as an evasion, now rings, especially after a second viewing, as a poetic précis.

About a man: Although Holy Motors stars Denis Lavant, the simian, sinewy actor who played the lead in Carax’s first three movies—Boy Meets Girl (1984), Bad Blood (1986), and The Lovers on the Bridge (1991)—it opens with the lanky writer-director himself. Arising in the dead of night from a hotel bed, Carax, clad in pale blue pajamas, opens a door with a key affixed to his finger and enters a passageway that leads to a movie-theater balcony. (The structure could form a twin cinema with Mulholland Dr.‘s Club Silencio.) From above, he looks down to see a roomful of motionless, stony-silent spectators. The prologue unfolds as an anxiety dream, the night terrors of a filmmaker, hailed as a crazy romantic genius in the first decade of his career, returning after a 13-year-long stall.

Another man, glimpsed fleetingly throughout, also figures prominently in Holy Motors: The barely clad athlete who leaps and runs in cinema pioneer Étienne-Jules Marey’s late-19th-century motion studies. This limber subject shares the same physical grace as the peewee, gymnastic Lavant, who plays Monsieur Oscar, a professional chameleon, inhabiting nearly a dozen different personas over the course of a single day. Steered through the streets of Paris in a white stretch limo by soignée chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob), Oscar consults a thick dossier for the particulars of his next “appointment.” These scenarios require him to play, among others, a homeless old woman shaking a tin cup, a performer bending and contorting for a motion-capture sex scene, and a feral leprechaun (a reprise of the character Lavant played in Carax’s contribution to the 2008 omnibus film Tokyo!) terrorizing a fashion shoot, absconding with a top model (Eva Mendes) in whose lap he is soon cradled, stark naked and sporting a ramrod erection.

Experience of being alive: During the span of 16 or so hours, Oscar continually reinvents himself, exhausting work that he still pursues for “the beauty of the act,” as he explains to a mysterious exec (played by Michel Piccoli), who suddenly appears in the backseat. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the slightly sinister suit responds—to which Oscar asks, “And what if there’s no more beholder?”

This is a film: Oscar’s query suggests that part of what defines “the experience of being alive” is forestalling death or mourning that which has already passed or will imminently. The “beholders” Oscar refers to could be moviegoers, a group of people that Carax, at his Cannes press conference, described as “a bunch of people who will be dead soon”; cinema itself he called “a beautiful island with a cemetery.” Begrudgingly shooting on digital, Carax pays tribute to the near-extinct (film, film-going) via ghosts in
the machine—Marey’s moving man—and living legends who will forever be celluloid heroes. Piccoli appeared in his first movie the year World War II ended; Scob, indelibly linked with Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, once again dons the mask that made that 1960 horror masterwork so spooky.

Carax was born the same year that Franju’s film came out; if his film is partly an elegy for cinema, it is also perhaps a melancholic glance back that draws from more personal anguish. As Oscar’s night begins to wind down, an unscheduled reunion occurs: He sees, for the first time in 20 years, Jean (Kylie Minogue, transcendent), a woman he once loved dearly who is engaged in the same kind of shape-shifting work as he is. (The character’s name and hairdo cite Jean Seberg.) Their brief encounter takes place at another mausoleum, the Samaritaine, a beloved Art Deco department store shuttered in Paris in 2005 and now slated to become a luxury hotel. Stepping over mannequin corpses, Jean breaks into song: “Who were we/When we were/Who we were/Back then.” Co-written by Carax, the lyrics, in their Ouroboros-like construction, circle back to an ever-present past; the linguistic construction of the song’s opening lines seems, like Oscar himself, to be in a constant state of flux, always slipping just out of our grasp. If there’s no more beholder, how will we know what we were?

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Max et les Ferrailleurs

A rather bizarre genre film from erratic extra-New Wave auteur Claude Sautet, this 1971 policier pivots on Michel Piccoli as a necktie detective in Paris maddened by culprits escaping conviction due to insufficient evidence. This is the same year as Dirty Harry and The French Connection, but Piccoli’s impassive mystery man (who is mocked by his fellow cops) doesn’t resort to force or bullying—he resolves to burnish his record by inciting a bank robbery amid a group of low-rent scrap-metal thieves and then catching them in the act. His access point is one of the petty crook’s hooker girlfriends (Romy Schneider), whom he “dates” but doesn’t bed, instead photographing her and playing gin rummy. Its own kind of anti-heist film, Sautet’s low-boiler treats Piccoli’s peculiar, primly dressed protagonist as a cipher, until we’re given cause to wonder if he’s insane, a turning point hardly substantiated by the otherwise vague screenplay. Schneider is vivacious as always, but the novelty of seeing Piccoli playing a cool genre hero is cut by the Bukowskian levels of cigs and drinks consumed, in every scene, to the extent that we begin to worry about the actors’ health more than the understated story. Michael Atkinson

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Institutional Failure: Toothless Satire of the Church in We Have a Pope

Suitable entertainment for a Knights of Columbus fundraiser, Nanni Moretti’s Good Friday–released We Have a Pope finds the Most Holy Father, wracked with self-doubt about his new position, on a walkabout in Rome. Back at the Vatican, the cuddly cardinals who await his return square off in a round-robin volleyball tournament. The original Latin title of Moretti’s tragicomedy, a soft send-up of the Catholic Church, is Habemus Papam. The “am” in the second word should be chopped off.

Actor-writer-director Moretti, a darling of Cannes, where We Have a Pope premiered last May (and where he will serve as president of the jury next month), has often been referred to as the “Italian Woody Allen”; in his earlier works, like Caro Diario (1993), he turned the camera on himself and his foibles. Here, as in his previous film, The Caiman (2006), which takes aim at Silvio Berlusconi, he attempts to scrutinize the oddities of all-powerful leaders and institutions. More pointed than We Have a Pope, The Caiman failed as a pungent satire, its “jabs” at the former prime minister overshadowed by its dominant, wearying marital melodrama until the film’s biting final scene. Moretti’s latest follows a similar arc: It starts with broad physical comedy (a cardinal face-plants in the dark), introduces a potentially provocative idea—has the pope lost his faith? if so, why?—then stupefyingly pulls its punches until the closing minutes, when the film acknowledges, in powerful but nonspecific terms, the staggering, appalling crises facing the Catholic Church. “I preferred not to allow myself to be conditioned by current affairs,” Moretti, who was raised Catholic but is now “not a believer,” says in the press notes. “It is a made-up story: My film is about my Vatican, my conclave, my cardinals.”

The director needn’t have checklisted the unspeakable acts covered up by the church or its hubris, but to so willfully ignore them is pure naive folly. In the director’s fairy tale, facile metaphors—the pope as performer, the Vatican as theater—serve as the feeblest of commentary. Moretti plays, in his typically overweening fashion, renowned psychoanalyst Bruzzi, summoned to aid the newly elected pontiff, Melville (Michel Piccoli), who screams “I can’t do this!” right before he is to approach the balcony of the Vatican to greet his flock. Trying to determine the cause of his analysand’s profound panic attack, the atheist shrink makes little progress in his first and only session with Melville, played for laughs: Their meeting is observed by all members of the conclave and nearly every topic (dreams, unfulfilled fantasies, “parental deficit”) is nixed by the Vatican spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr). To better treat the reluctant pope’s paralysis, it is decided that he should leave the Holy City to seek treatment with Bruzzi’s ex-wife (Margherita Buy), also a psychoanalyst—who, like everyone else outside the conclave, is unaware that Melville is the newly elected pontiff.

Wondering whether his breakdown is a kind of “psychological sinusitis,” Melville tells Bruzzi’s ex, when she asks him what he does for a living, that he is a “an actor in the theater.” He becomes one of a sort after fleeing his handlers. Mingling with civilians in the Italian capital, Melville soon ingratiates himself with a troupe rehearsing Chekhov’s The Seagull. Talking to himself on a city bus during his three-day absence from the Vatican, he strings together some thoughts about the church: “It’s been hard to admit our faults.” This mildest of barbs against the Catholic hierarchy is cushioned further by the reactions of the pope’s fellow travelers, who look kindly at the sweet, sympathetic, frail old man.

Through his stature as one of Europe’s most veteran actors, Piccoli, now 86, brings a certain welcome gravitas to Moretti’s film. But until the potent concluding scene, the humor and shallow profundities of We Have a Pope pivot on the cuteness of geriatrics, especially when they’re spiking a volleyball in slo-mo.

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Don’t Touch the White Woman

Dir. Marco Ferrari (1974).
This late New Left jape is almost a slapstick version of Godard’s Wind From the East—a stridently political anti-Western featuring Marcello Mastroianni as General Custer, Michel Piccoli as Buffalo Bill, and Catherine Deneuve as the eponymous WW.

Wed., March 16, 6:50 & 9:15 p.m., 2011

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I’m Going Home

Dir. Manoel de Oliviera (2001).
The story of an aging actor’s bereavement shows Manoel de Oliveira in a surprisingly humanist mode; this restrained, precise, and unobtrusively wry character study may be as close as he ever came to making a commercial movie. Michel Piccoli savors a role allowing him full range—doddering monster, wise enchanter, genial celebrity, stubborn artist, doting grandfather, and, finally, miscast actor. Take the title as you will, Oliveira’s confidence is exceeded only by his serenity.

Fridays-Sundays, 11 a.m.; Mon., Feb. 21, 11 a.m. Starts: Feb. 18. Continues through Feb. 20, 2011

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The Woman in Blue

(Michel Deville, 1972).
Deville’s smartly made picture is a hard-to-categorize somewhat chauvinistic ironic drama about a double obsession. Michel Piccoli plays a noted Parisian musicologist obsessed with finding a mysterious woman he only saw once. He enlists his sometime lover (Lea Massari) who is obsessed with him to come along in the search. The film is most notable for the last screen appearance of the late great Simone Simon (The Cat People) in a cameo role as the madam of a high-end brothel.

Tue., July 21, 12:30, 4 & 7:30 p.m., 2009

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The Things of Life

(Claude Sautet, 1969).
Sautet first made a few decent thrillers, but his career didn’t really get under way until he shot this rich and sober study of bourgeois life. Michel Piccoli gives a beautifully understated performance as an average dude, torn between his mistress and his ex-wife with whom he’s still involved.

Tue., July 14, 12:30, 4 & 7:30 p.m., 2009

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The Creatures

(Agnes Varda, 1966).
This whimsical affair, one of Varda’s rare really botched movies, is set on the island of Noirmoutier, the director’s home at the time it was made. If it’s about anything, it’s about the creative process in action and stars that fine actor Michel Piccoli as a novelist who bases the characters in his story on friends and acquaintances. The damn thing never jells.

Tue., June 30, 12:30, 4 & 7:30 p.m., 2009

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Ferreri’s Dillinger Is Dead Still Packs Heat

Even the gas mask designed by Glauco (Michel Piccoli), the central figure in Marco Ferreri’s 1969 Dillinger Is Dead, offers little protection against the toxicity of materialism and bourgeois living that hangs thick in the movie’s petrified ’60s air. A signature love-it-or-hate-it provocation from the Italian ringmaster best known for giving us the gorging gastronomes of La Grande bouffe and the self-castrating Gérard Depardieu of The Last Woman, the rarely screened Dillinger (which plays at BAM this week in a new 35mm print) unfolds almost entirely within the confines of Glauco’s mod apartment, where consumerist clutter is the abiding principle: One room’s sleek, modular furniture abuts another’s Navajo chic. In the kitchen, where the majority of the action takes place, a garish floral tablecloth stands out against rustic brick walls like a fuchsia raincoat in a blizzard.

Working at the height of his powers, Ferreri turns this domestic prison into a centrifuge of ideas about the loss of self in an age when movies, TV, and commercial advertising had come to promise us the ability to be whomever we wanted. Returning home late one night, Glauco sets about fixing himself a gourmet dinner while his migraine-afflicted wife (Keith Richards paramour Anita Pallenberg) rests in a pharmaceutical slumber and Wall of Sound pop blares from a radio. Rifling through a cupboard stacked with sundries and old magazines, he chances upon a six-shooter wrapped in old newspaper headlines about the death of John Dillinger. As he fillets and sautées, Glauco likewise cleans and polishes the firearm, at one point stirring it in a bowl of olive oil, as if it, too, were on the menu. No wonder Jean-Luc Godard (whose influence on Ferreri looms large) was said to be a fan: Taking his master’s immortal words about the high body count of Pierrot le fou—”not blood, but red”—one step further, Ferreri gives us a movie in which a revolver is no different from ravioli.

Dinner is followed by a movie, as Piccoli’s post-industrial Little Tramp reflects and refracts 8mm vacation films off his living room’s gleaming white walls. Glauco stands so close to the makeshift screen that he blends right into the image, becoming a bullfighter, an ocean swimmer, and, finally, a shadow puppet, brandishing his pistol—reborn as a red-and-white polka-dotted objet d’art—the way Dillinger (who was said to have copied his own best moves from watching Douglas Fairbanks movies) might have. Thus the reel becomes real, or at least a primitive MRPG, and, 40 years later, the final moments of Dillinger Is Dead can still send an audience startled and scintillated into the night.

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Contempt: A Once-a-Century Cultural Constellation

They don’t make them like this anymore. Point of fact, they never did; Godard’s Contempt is a once-a-century cultural constellation. Inexplicably underwritten by gauche producers/foils Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine, JLG undertakes an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel of romantic fatalism. He keeps to the book’s storyline: the corrosion of a young marriage, which becomes a self-analytical detective story in the “intellectual” husband’s niggling insistence on finding exactly where things went wrong. Godard replaces Moravia’s first-person interiority with a real sense of domestic life; the film’s famous second movement is a quietly virtuosic half-hour of Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot bickering all through their apartment, built around the mechanics of sharing a bathroom. Piccoli plays a scriptwriter just brought onboard a screen version of The Odyssey by philistine producer Jerry (a very funny Jack Palance, with the wedge head of a grinning excavated idol) to break an impasse with the director (Fritz Lang, as himself) over artsy dailies. The Babel of international co-productions lends itself to a tangle of dialogue in French, Italian, German, English, and American, in which proverbs, poetry, and bad jokes are translated for exchange. Identified in its trailer as a “New Traditional film,” Contempt conflates the Mediterraneans of antiquity and Alfa Romeo, with enough omnicultural reference points to support a slab of footnotes. It’s the intersection of pedantry and absolute sensuality. It’s Bardot, age 28, preserved in cheesecake inserts. It’s light filtered through cypresses at Jerry’s vacation villa (Casa Malaparte, on the bluffs of Capri, a favored getaway spot for venal emperors). The film swells to a masochistic luxuriance; beneath it all are the weeping string arrangements of Georges Delerue, returning with the persistence of an inconsolable fixed idea: “What happened?”