HOLY MOTORS | Leox Carax, 2012
If the opening night film, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, is as difficult to describe as festival director Bill Gosden says in the programme notes, the closing night film is nearly impossible. HOLY MOTORS is comprised of a series of set-pieces featuring director Leos Carax’s long-time collaborator, Denis Lavant. Among other things, the film is both a wry criticism of and affectionate ode to French cinema, French social mores, and contemporary French culture. Where Carax’s Les Amants des Pont Neuf (1991) was a celebration of Paris and youthful passion, Holy Motors is darker but no less passionate, playful, inventive, and energetic.
The mood is ultimately melancholic, recognising that all things must not only change, they inevitably pass. Along the way, Carax and Lavant dazzle with one slight-of-hand after another, offering plenty to be amused by, wonder at, and ponder over. It’s probably best not to work too hard trying to figure things out, although cinephiles will find much to keep them entertained as Carax alternately honours and takes swipes at various fads, movements, and cine-gods, from Cocteau to Kubrick, the Nouvelle Vague, theatre, dance, fashion, celebrity, commercialism, action movies, musicals, sci-fi, Matthew Barney, French intellectual angst and various socio-political hot potatoes, and finally the uncertain future of cinema. In the penultimate shot, Edith Scob dons the famous mask from Eyes Without a Face (directed by her late husband, Georges Franju) then walks out of shot saying, “I’m coming home.”
Holy Motors is dedicated to the late Lithuanian actress Yekaterina Golubeva, once married to the exceptional but little-know director Sharunas Bartas, whose films she appeared in prior to their divorce. Relocating to France, she worked with some of the finest directors of the last decade, notably Claire Denis and Bruno Dumont. For several years she was Carax’s partner, but in August 2011 she committed suicide. It’s likely that the ‘bitterness’ some reviewers sense in the film may stem from Carax’s personal grief. One of the most affecting sequences features Kylie Minogue (in an homage to Jean Seberg?) singing a poignant song by Carax called ‘Who Were We?’. The sequence ends with Minogue removing the Seberg costume before jumping from a building to her death. Whatever you make of the film, it’s obvious that Carax made it with his heart. Every frame brims with blood and passion, and a genuine love of cinema.
STUDENT | Darezhan Omirbaev, 2012
Programmed at the end of the Auckland festival, Holy Motors functioned (as Bill Gosden succinctly put it) as the ideal ‘digestif’ to conclude two-weeks of cinematic gastronomy. Well, almost conclude – a number of fine films were scheduled for the following and final day, including one of the best of the festival, Darezhan Omirbaev’s STUDENT. As far as I know, this is the first Omirbaev film to be screened in New Zealand, which is a shame given the quality of his relatively modest output (most of which can be sourced on DVD). Omirbaev is one of a handful of directors (along with Aki Kaurismaki and les frères Dardenne) whose work reflects the formal and thematic influence of Robert Bresson. Lean and elliptical, Student is an aesthetically singular re-setting of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which Kaurismaki successfully transposed in 1983. Dostoyevsky influenced Bresson too, most overtly in Pickpocket (1959, inspired by Crime and Punishment), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Four Nights of a Dreamer (1974), and A Gentle Creature (1969). References to these and other Bresson films abound in Student, but they are by no means slavish. Omirbaev juxtaposes Bresson’s faith in Spiritual Renewal through Grace with images implying that enmity is the intrinsic defining characteristic of humankind and the natural world alike, a world where notions such as Divine Intervention are long-gone. But in the end, love and forgiveness (if not Love and Forgiveness) endure.
Lacking the overt humour of Kaurismaki (which is not to say that Student is devoid of wry wit) and the visceral energy and empathetic emotional engagement of the Dardenne brothers, and with a subtext that considers Kazakhstan’s transition from a socialist economy to oligarchy-dominated survival-of-the-fittest capitalism, Student may not find an enthusiastic audience beyond cinephiles with a taste for minimalism. But this is no unforgiving exercise in Bressonian austerity. Omirbaev’s style is certainly measured, but through his unforced and highly attractive expositional economy, the titular protagonist becomes the metaphoric locus for a number of complex and often deliberately contradictory political and moral viewpoints. The relatively mundane and inexpressive surfaces also speak to the integrity required when making aesthetic and formal choices for films with socio-political or philosophical subtexts, where the tropes generally associated with mainstream movies are likely to be insufficient or inappropriate. Alas, this can lead to films being misread as cold, empty, boring, or simply bad (as some responses to Student have alluded), the implication being that “better” films conform to a set of clearly defined (i.e. non-alienating) principles. Even a relatively straightforward film such as Craig Zobel's Compliance runs the risk of being read primarily in terms of surfaces rather than its troubling subtext.
WEST OF MEMPHIS | Amy Berg, 2012
Another film that examines the persuasive machinations of authority, the manipulative power of language, and the demonization, humiliation, victimisation, and abuse of the powerless is Amy Berg’s WEST OF MEMPHIS, an extremely potent example of the corrupted mindset depicted in Compliance. Such a mindset is invariably given to enmity, and to a rationale of expediency where no cost is too great to achieve the “greater” goal – especially when paid by others. In its embryonic form, the ‘greater goal’ could be very noble: freedom from tyranny, the protection of the innocent, justice, or something as modest as friends pursuing a good and worthy enterprise that gradually succumbs to enmity. What don’t we know about humankind? What don’t we know about warmongering, back-stabbing, guilt, cover-ups, prejudice, fear, greed, shame, deception, contempt, and above all the ingrained impulse to covet? Compliance may not have been the best film in the festival, but it laid all of this bare for all to see. West of Memphis made it palpably real.
The attendance of Damien Echols, Lorri Davis, and Peter Jackson at the Q&A following the Auckland screening of West of Memphis brought the film to vivid life. Barely a year since he and fellow prisoners Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly Jr were released from an eighteen-year jail term (ten in solitary confinement), Damien Echols stood before a packed and enthusiastic Civic theatre audience fielding questions with disarming candidness, lucidity, humility, and most affecting of all, humanity. The first hour of this skilfully and intelligently constructed film focuses on the backstory, familiar to those who have seen the three preceding films, but summarised by Berg with great clarity. The rest of the film follows the attempts of Damien’s wife, Lorri Davis, and the many other men and women (including Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) who worked for years to bring something resembling justice to a scandalous judicial sham. Echols and his two friends were wrongly incarcerated for the 1993 murder of three 8-year old boys. Jesse and Jason got life sentences while Damien was sent to death row. He might have been killed years ago if not for the documentaries, the books, and the many who fought to have the convictions quashed. Eventually they were offered the opportunity to enter an Alford Plea, which grants freedom on condition that they plead guilty to the murders while also allowing them to maintain their innocence (?!). More pertinently, this twisted piece of fuckery protects the state of Arkansas from being sued by the men or exonerating them.
Meanwhile, the killer continues to walk free.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the revelation that some of those harmed or affected by this case refuse to accept the innocence of the so-called ‘West Memphis Three’ because to do so would mean the collapse of their faith in a sacrosanct system. I struggle to empathise with such a conundrum. Perhaps I’m too cynical, or maybe my core values have yet to be as deeply shaken, but I understand not wanting to accept the unacceptable. If one’s identity is intimately integrated into something absolute and indivisible, the collapse of that thing – the disintegration of one’s most deeply held principles, precepts, codes, and structures – could be akin to embracing chaos and anarchy, particularly if that absolute something offers meaning and hope in the wake of unimaginable trauma. It’s hard to fathom the depth of betrayal felt by the families of the slain boys when they realised that those representing the system that ostensibly serves them had so cynically used it against them. That these men (these 'avatars of absolutism') continue to hold positions of unquestioned authority emphasises the fundamental point made by Craig Zobel’s Compliance. The people who scoff at the film, who claim that no one could be stupid enough to unquestionably comply with the demands of a pervert, should see West of Memphis. Mind you, one can never underestimate the power of denial.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader