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The 40th Norwegian International Film Festival

By Asbjørn Grønstad on 24.08.2012 (07:00).

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The 40th Norwegian International Film Festival wrapped up in Haugesund yesterday, and earlier in the week I made time to watch some of the long anticipated films on the program. Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s supposedly “unfilmable” novel On the Road was not a complete disaster, although I found its stylistic rendition of the author’s largely autobiographical adventures much too polished for the material at hand. Michael Haneke’s Amour, an exceptionally sensitive yet wholly unsentimental portrayal of old age, withering health and mortality, consolidates both the Austrian director’s unique body of work (the film won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in May) and – despite the presence of a gentle humanism not often associated with Haneke – his unwavering partiality to scenes and images uncomfortable to sit through. But even Haneke was upstaged this year. As a scholar and cineaste who watches films incessantly, I’m not easily thrown off guard; in fact I cannot even remember the last time that happened. But Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s first feature after a thirteen-year hiatus, explodes all previous frames of reference for what the cinema can still be. It might be the most unpredictable and maddeningly imaginative film in a decade. Narratively straightforward yet drenched in imponderable enigmas, Carax’s untethered exploration of – among a host of other issues – the pliability of self and cinematic performativity, takes the form of a very long limousine drive. A man named Oscar, Carax regular Denis Lavant, is chauffeured around an uncannily beautiful Paris by Celine, played by Edith Scob from Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. His job is to make a series of “appointments” around the city the fulfillment of which requires rather resourceful disguises as well as a stupendous versatility when it comes to acting. Oscar at various points embodies a deformed old woman begging in the streets; an assassin; a motion-capture videography artist dressed in a black spandex suit; a monstrous gnome living in the city’s sewers; a concerned father; and an old man on his deathbed, to name a few of his characters. These performances, we are lead to assume, are recorded by unseen cameras that webcast Oscar’s exploits to voyeuristic subscribers. But this bizarre odyssey is prefaced first by a few flickering images from Etienne-Jules Marey’s motion studies of a nude man running and then a shot of a still and seemingly paralyzed motion picture audience. The film playing appears to be King Vidor’s silent The Crowd(1928). In subsequent shots there is a pajama-clad man (Carax himself) who unlocks a secret door that happens to lead him inside the movie theater, in which an immense black dog is walking down the aisles in slow motion. The sequence is immediately reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, Mulholland Drive in particular, and this surrealist sensibility remained throughout. ButHoly Motors easily outweirds even Lynch; as a matter of fact it might be stranger than anything you have ever seen and I’m sure it will become a deeply polarizing film. As some critics have been quick to point out, there is also a touch of Alice in Wonderlandand Metropolis here, and, while I have not seen it yet, there seems to be an obvious parallel between Holy Motors and another film that also involves an extended limo drive and which played at Cannes this year, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. But Lynchian reverberations aside, Carax’s film is a largely unprecedented work. It is unusually rich visually (it was shot in high-definition video by Caroline Champetier, who won a Cesar for Of Gods and Men, and Yves Cape), and apart from being entirely unrestrained, deranged even, where it impresses the most, perhaps, is in its subtly alternating moods, as exhilaration, comedy, provocation, shock, sadness, melancholy, and grief all bleed into one another. Holy Motors is the kind of film that alone is proof that the creative possibilities of the medium of cinema are far from exhausted.

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