Sunday, December 02, 2012

New Film: Holy Motors (2012)

A work of enterprising vision and aggressive newness that finds all narratives exhausted, Leos Carax's Holy Motors (2012) emerges as one of the year's most fully realized ruminations on the current and coming status of film art. With flash Muybridge inserts, Hugoesque fiction and a battery of prosthetic disguises, Carax's first film in thirteen years brings the century of cinema's invention into contact with the incidence of its digital expiration and even its extrapolated fictionalized future. Holy Motors is a film without an outside, a cinema that is all cinema - a cinema as dream, in the spirit of Carax's opening metaphor - that nonetheless feels the fatigue of the productive act in the ages of the DCP multiplex, satellite broadcasting and inevitably, Internet image-making.

Holy Motors constructs its allegory for the twenty-first century artefactual experience as a omnibus-style sequence of nine "appointments" (in addition to a reflexively surreal prologue, de-constructive musical intermission, and post-human epilogue) that the aptly named M. Oscar (Denis Lavant) keeps over the course of a single, extended work-day. Chauffeured to each by professional associate Céline (Édith Scob, pictured, beneath the mint-green mask), Oscar is charged with incarnating a series of disparate figures that he cometically contrives in the spacious backseat of stretch limousine. (Holy Motors almost inevitably suggests an aleatoric companion-piece to David Cronenberg's fellow Cannes premiere, Cosmopolis; 2012.) In thus relying so exceedingly on the mise-en-scène of the celluloid index (make-up, costuming), Carax's film openly resists the transformative capacities of digital editing.

What Holy Motors opts for instead is already and more profoundly present in Muybridge: the movement of a body in space. In Carax's latest, the ubiquity of Lavant's physical presence suggests nothing less than the displacement of the traditional film index onto the actor's body. In fact, the body is so central to Holy Motors that it remains the focal presence even when it is submitted to technological effacement: in the instance of M. Oscar's employment as a motion-capture actor, it is not the animated adult-fantasy imagery that provides the chief source of the passage's spectacle, but rather the astonishing bodily contortions performed by Lavant's co-star (in addition, of course, to the glowing abstractions produced by the body-suit sensors). In any case, it is the body in space once again that perseveres as Carax's subject - even when it is submitted to digital conversion.

Oscar's fantastic motion-capture 'appointment' contributes to Holy Motor's comprehensive cataloging of genre, with forms as disparate as Gothic horror, deathbed melodrama, the musical, and science-fiction comedy also included in Carax's encyclopedic project. This same omnibus structure equally serves to inscribe the changing cultural tenor of contemporary Paris: indications of radical Islam, single-parent households, demographic exhaustion and (of course) celebrity all emerge over the course of Carax's nine-part narrative. (In attempting on some level to contend with Paris as it is now constituted, Holy Motors achieves a surface-level contemporaneity that is absent all-too-often among art-house French imports.) Finally, Carax's shifting subjects and settings afford the director the opportunity for revisiting his own cinematic past, from the return of his "Merde" (2008) sewer-dweller to the sparkling nocturnal presence of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf's (1991) focalized structure.

It is Paris ultimately that completes Holy Motor's historically grounded sense of the cinematic index. However, it is a Paris that the spectator will never fail to behold without the filmmaker's self-conscious mediation. Holy Motors is cinema that perpetually reminds its viewer of its status as fiction, explicitly transforming the often familiar, though rarely less than fresh narratives that surrealistically unfold as a series of acting 'appointments' into the stuff of the capitalistic commodity. Holy Motor is a film for our media-saturated moment and one of the few releases of 2012 that might just merit the title masterpiece. Minimally, Carax's latest represents a career peak for the director, and at the risk of damning with faint praise, a new high for the filmmakers of France's Cinéma du look.

This review was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Holy Motors is currently being distributed in North America by Indomina Releasing.

Monday, November 26, 2012

New Film: Tabu (2012)

Orchestrated brilliantly in a measureless variation of silky gray tones and underwritten ironically by a light twinkling of ivory, the 35mm prelude for Miguel Gomes's third feature Tabu (2012) subtly sets the internal parameters for the fast-rising Portuguese director's sidelong take on F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty's eponymous original. Gomes's robustly referential fiction opens on a dejected intrepid explorer, a Robinson Crusoe-type in darkest Africa, who in Wes Anderson-esque ethnographic voice-over laments the loss of his beloved wife. The latter however will appear as an apparition-like presence to the suicidal bereaved, before taking her place in a still photo beside the now dead explorer's melancholic crocodile alter-ego. Gomes thus infuses the faux ethnography of his crisply cinematic open with a Bataille-inspired surrealism that (together with the Flaherty-inflected former) will continue to obtain, as categorical opposites, throughout the remaining two halves of the forty year-old director's post-colonial, post-structuralist narrative.

Inverting Tabu: A Story of the South Seas's (1931) two-part organization, Gomes's twenty-first century incarnation opens with "Paradise Lost," a Rouch In Reverse bit of first-world ethnography that soon finds first-half lead Pilar (Teresa Madruga) in a semi-fluent English exchange with an itinerant EU traveler. Pilar is then summoned by her elderly neighbor's African servant Santa (Isabel Cardoso) after the aged Aurora (Laura Soveral) loses a fortune at a local casino. Arriving, Aurora confesses her folly, observing that "peoples lives aren't like dreams," before narrating the fantasy (replete with gambling, monkey men, and dead women who fornicate with celebrities) that somehow convinced Aurora to imprudently try her luck. Gomes's luminous black-and-white 35 captures the elegant Aurora, masked by her prominent, dark-rimmed sunglasses, as she narrates her fever-dream atop a slowly rotating restaurant platform. In so doing, Gomes provides a richly lensed, lightly uncanny visual backdrop for what amounts to part one's first incursion of the surreal - a sense of everyday unreality that will return immediately thereafter in Pilar's flare-lit visit to a local Roman catacomb.

As 'Paradise Lost' progresses, Aurora accuses Santa, her fellow remnant of Portugal's colonial past, of devil-worship and witchcraft; she pleads with the devoutly Roman Catholic Pilar to entreat St. Anthony on her behalf (something that the focalized lead will do, impolitely, at a UN protest). In Gomes's Tabu there is no substantive difference between religious belief and superstition; both belong to a category of belief that no longer obtains in part one's alienated, post-Christian European civilization. With Aurora's health continuing to decline thereafter, she begins to speak in a surreal code that will become lucid only with the consequent arrival of "Paradise." Before reaching part two, however, Gomes stages one last set-piece in a liminal shopping-center jungle, which is to say in a threshold space that connects and combines the first half's urban capitalist-twilight with the second part's primitive plantation economics. As Gomes thusly exchanges his Oliveira-esque isomorphic dialogues for voiced-off recollection, part two commences with its very specific and radical aesthetic break.

With 'Paradise' being restored in part two, Gomes replaces the expansive 35mm gray-scales and crystalline conversations of the first half for a grainy 16 stock and even more conspicuously, a non-dialogue soundtrack (which nonetheless incorporates post-synchronous sound effects and even vocal pop performances). That is, Gomes trades in the loss of sound cinema for the paradise of Murnau's silent-shot, post-synchronous sound original. Of course, in dividing his film into sound and silence, 35 and 16mm - with a brief, super-8 home movie diversion in part two - Gomes procures a vivid sense of technologies and textures that, in the contemporary aftermath of the digital turn, speaks to the filmmaker's overriding scholarly impulse. We see this same instinct likewise in the filmmaker's encyclopedic approach to the stylistic figures (from the festival long-take to trick POV set-ups), media forms (the still image, the films within the film of part one, and even the Blissfully Yours-inspired scribbling on the image) and most distinctively of all, the modes of narration that structure Gomes's Tabu (the mimesis of part one, voice-over diegesis of part two, and the letters that conclude the film). As in his very fine Our Beloved Month of August (2008), Gomes seeks to include everything in his 2012 follow-up.  

If the latest Tabu is most obviously a consummate work of historical reference and obsessive piece of postmodern scholarship, this is not to suggest that it, in any respect, lacks more conventional narrative and psycho-sexual pleasures. The adulterous, taboo romance of the young Aurora (Ana Moreira, pictured, in 16mm) and her globetrotting musician lover Ventura (Carloto Cotta) will provide many of the film's more lusty pleasures, while the Iberian translations of "Be My Baby" and other period pop hits introduce a kitschy experience of nostalgia that is no less immediate. However, as pleasures go, there are none more bracing - and memorable - than Tabu's densely luxurious black-and-white visuals.

New York-based Adopt Films will be opening Tabu at Film Forum on December 26, with a series of single dates to follow, including Minneapolis's Walker Art Center on January 11.

Monday, November 12, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Barbara

Recipient of the Silver Bear for best director at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, Christian Petzold's Barbara (2012), from a screenplay by Petzold and renowned experimental documentarian Harun Farocki, succeeds in providing one of the most incisive portraits yet of the everyday paranoia brought into existence by the German Democratic Republic's all-seeing Stasi. In Petzold's highly accomplished latest, everything is minutely calibrated detail and unerringly precise observation, which is to say that Barbara is absolutely saturated with its police state subject matter. Nowhere does this discourse play out with greater concentration or drama than on Nina Hoss's angular, intractable face. Petzold both opens and closes his film on the visage around whom will build his GDR-era thriller - on the dark blue eyes, high sculpted cheekbones and sullen lips that will conceal the mysteries of past traumas and keep secret personally damaging future designs.

Barbara commences with the arrival of Hoss's eponymous heroine in the East German countryside, 1980. Barbara is a reassigned Berlin physician and former member of the nation's prison population, for crimes not specified anywhere in Petzold's film. Being fully aware of the Stasi's constant human surveillance, Barbara is deeply guarded and cautious upon first arriving in the provinces; when, for example, her immediate supervisor André (Ronald Zehrfeld) fails to ask her address when driving her home from the hospital, she protests and demands that she be let out of the vehicle - thus recognizing that he is one of the East German police's countless civilian agents. At home, the sudden shock of her apartment buzzer - Petzold has long since mastered the sonorous effects of the horror film - is accompanied by the appearance of a prying neighbor who demands that Barbara immediately inspect a storage area. Barbara, in other words, is surrounded by those who will scrutinize her every gesture.

Of course, Barbara's own actions early in the film also resonate with intrigue: after receiving a small monetary package inside a restaurant lavatory, she departs for a desolate stretch of countryside where she buries her newly acquired bundle. Returning home on her bicycle later that evening, she is stopped by state officials who are dubious of her nighttime choice of transportation. Indeed, they will later pay Barbara a pair of home visits, which in both instances will include off-camera cavity searches administered by a female agent. Petzold's slow-burn narrative thusly shades from the initial mystery of Barbara's undisclosed identity to the realm of suspense as her clandestine activities, including her secret meetings with a West German lover Jörg (Mark Waschke), must be kept from the watchful eyes of the Stasi's expansive network of civilian informers. In Barbara, the smallest of on-screen details possess the capacity to destroy the film's focalized female lead - and her hopes of reuniting with the no less enigmatic Jörg.

As Barbara progresses, Petzold's subject begins to pivot from pure political thriller to ethics-oriented melodrama, with the needs of the titular lead's patients coming to take increased precedent. Of particular note is a hysterical young female patient named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), whom Barbara soon discovers has spent time at an East German prison/concentration camp. Barbara's compassionate attitude toward the patient is contrasted early on with André's lack of apparent sympathy: he inhumanely refers to Stella on multiple occasions without once mentioning her by name, a point that Barbara accusatorially notes. André, however, will consequently show his own Hippocratic commitment and human feeling in treating another male patient, who, like Stella, will play a key role in the film's final suspense-filled act. Suffice it to say that admitted Stasi informer André will prove more an ally than an antagonist as the film transforms into medical melodrama. Petzold in this sense, as in another key instance, humanizes the film's Stasi, though admirably not to the point that they are prevented from carrying out their heinous activities.

In both content and form Barbara again represents a new peak in Stasi-themed cinema, easily besting Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's somewhat suspect Academy award-winner The Lives of Others (2006). What von Donnersmarck's film does well, Hitchcockian suspense, Barbara does even better, which following first-rate thrillers like Jerichow (2008) and Beats Being Dead (2011) - Barbara strongly recalls the former in its low-key nocturnal set-pieces and the latter in its cool verdant landscapes - should come as no surprise. Petzold indeed has long since confirmed his stature as the Berlin school's master of genre, while that movement's leading female lights especially - Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach and Pia Marais, to name three - continue to supply the small "a" art cinema (when, that is, they have the opportunity to work). Of course, Petzold is no stranger to this latter mode, having made one of the first humanist masterworks of the Berlin-school movement in 2000's adolescently focalized The State I Am In. In returning in Barbara to terrain proximate to the historical-political content of The State I Am In, Petzold has made his best film since the latter work - and perhaps his best film to date.

Let me thank Lisa K. Broad for her many contributions to this piece, and throughout the festival. Speaking of Lisa, be sure to check out her final festival report card, where she and I grade eighteen films from this year's event.