It may have come home empty-handed, but no one would deny Holy Motors was the talk of Cannes a few months ago. The comeback of Leos Carax, French cinema’s favourite “enfant terrible”, after a decade spent in near-obscurity, was the perfect occasion for the industry to do what it always does: celebrate the outcast it formerly ostracized for being such a weirdo. It’s something the filmmaker himself is so aware of that he made it the subject of his film. In the opening images, a sleepy Carax is waking up in his pyjamas and breaking the wall that – literally – separates him from the world. He ends up into the light of a film projector, in a full-house cinema, where all the spectators are transfixed. The “film” hasn’t even properly started yet, and the director’s own hibernation and his return are already staged and set up for endless mise-en-abymes and self-reflexive aphorisms. Above all, Holy Motors is a Leos Carax film about Leos Carax making films again.
Hailed by most critics present as an “ode to cinema”, a “love letter to the big screen”, a “return to form” and all the usual superlatives, the film has retained an element of mystery. Despite reading a dozen reviews beforehand, I still had no clue about what Holy Motors was about when I sat on the first balcony of the Max Linder cinema, one of Paris’ most colourful theatres (you should really catch a film there if you visit the capital by the way). Once seen, it still evades description. Yes, there is a story, or rather, stories, but no real narrative. Each “appointment” of the main character, Mr Oscar, is the pretext for a slice of genre cinema, often pushed to its most absurd corners.
However, Holy Motors avoids being a collection of sketches. Despite going through the tropes of horror, thriller, fantastic, musical (the rather sublime part with Kylie Minogue singing in a deserted department store) or even naturalistic drama, including an incredibly violent father and daughter emotional contretemps and an interminably melodramatic “dying old man” strand (did Carax unconsciously parody Cannes winner Amour?), each sequence belongs to a coherent whole; everything united in its madness, its preposterousness, its own internal logic. Even the silent film inserts or the “entracte” – a music video for a fictional alt-rock accordion band – doesn’t spoil the ensemble.
Style-wise, Carax is also all-embracing. If the cinema du look neon stylings are prominent (he was, after all, with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix, the creator of the aesthetic in the 1980s), the impeccably shotHoly Motors, goes from CGI motion-capture porn to the chic classicism of perfume adverts. Carax is a nostalgic: he longs for the huge machinery of bygone years – the “holy motors” – against the miniature technology that pervades our everyday life, but his vision still looks futuristic.
Carax’s visual mastery would be nothing without Dennis Lavant’s truly extraordinary Lon Chaney-esque lead performance. The face melted by a hard-lived life, his Mr Oscar is a weary clown putting on masks all day when he steps out of his limo, in a world populated by actors, all immortal and polymorph, meeting each other during mysterious appointments. Mere humans, in all their surburban mediocrity and sameness, are monkeys (once again, Carax is not affraid of using literal images for his metaphors).
The “stars”, when they appear, rise up to Denis Lavant’s incredible presence. Minogue, as mentioned earlier, is impeccable, but it’s Eva Mendes that truly impresses. Her meeting with Monsieur Merde (Mr Shit, Mr Oscar’s most revolting incarnation) is a jaw-dropper. Looking something like a cross between a stoned drag-queen and a high-end escort, she’s kidnapped during a photoshoot in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, and drawn half-naked in the sewers. There, Mr Merde forces a makeshift burka on her, before lying down nude on her knees, with a sizeable erection. Such association between the Hollywood star and the freak, staged in a long take, disturbs as it seems so inconceivable. The erect penis here (fake, as Carax wanted Lavant’s dick to look like a dog’s attributes) in front of one of the industry’s illustrious representants encapsulates Carax appetite – for life, for film, etc – and his will to shock, to say “fuck you” to the studio system. The penis is also flesh and blood, against all the virtual matter surrounding us.
Hence Leos Carax re-asserts himself as the missing link between La Nouvelle Vague and the New French Extreme movement. Holy Motors‘ disregard for reality and narrative and love for mise-en-abyme and surrealism are pure Godard, while the successive transgressive tableaux of sex, dirt and violence set in a nocturnal Paris wouldn’t go amiss in Gaspar Noé’s or Claire Denis’ work.
Holy Motors‘ nihilistic approach to narrative, genre and even taste makes it impossible to review in plain terms of “good” or “bad”. It’s surely not for everyone. But as a filmic object, it’s truly unique. Something you seldom see, an immensely watchable ride into one of cinema’s most creative and deranged cinematic minds. A love letter to cinema indeed, with added stains of piss, blood and sperm.
Holy Motors is in cinemas from Friday, released by Artificial Eye. Contributor Guillaume Gendron can be followed on Twitter @GGendron20.
Make no mistake about it, Polisse is a genuine curate’s egg. A rough, raggedy portrait of an under-pressure Parisian Child Protection Unit, it scorches an unpredictable trail from harrowing to laughable and back again in just over two unremitting, frequently melodramatic hours. In fact, it’s difficult to think of another film in recent years in which the good and the truly awful have coexisted in such close proximity.
Utilising a primarily hand-held, documentary-style aesthetic, director Maïwenn plunges us into a world where harried individuals must confront acts of unspeakable depravity on a daily basis. They are a tight-knit team prone to bickering (about anything from linguistics to gender politics) and airing their dirty personal laundry at voluble levels. The comrades’ badinage-under-duress vibe is impressively established in Polisse‘s early stages, and the film has an earthy, punchy compelling start. Sadly, as subplots pile up at a rate of knots, it swiftly begins to lose focus.
One of Maïwenn’s least wise decisions was to cast herself in the role of a roving photographer commissioned by the ministry to capture the unit’s actions. She’s less a character, more an ethereal, slightly distracting presence: the film equivalent of an Enya song coming on your radio. The group’s debating about the merits of the her role is – in script terms – clumsily self-reflexive, but at least brings her character into some sort of focus. Her burgeoning romance with the CPU’s hot-headed Fred (played by rapper-turned-actor Joeystarr) is totally uninvolving, soap-opera stuff.
A number of scenes are excoriatingly powerful as lone entities, but such is Maïwenn’s lack of tonal and structural control, they tend to exist in a vacuum. One particularly harrowing passage in which a young African boy is separated from his mother would be just as effective if viewed separately. Likewise, a late showdown in which a Muslim CPU member challenges a suspected sex offender over his knowledge of the Koran seems to have been included simply because the subject of faith hasn’t been explicitly brought up yet.
There’s also a forced levity that sits oddly with such decidedly bleak material. A tense raid on a sect of child-criminal groomers is immediately followed by a jaw-droppingly weird dance sequence on a school bus, set to disco music. And these guys don’t go to the pub to unwind, no; instead they’re granted a full-on, City of God-style nightclub tear-up. Elsewhere, we’re treated to snatches of bleak gallows humour; witness the scene when the crew fall around laughing at a gauche young girl who’s been dispensing oral sex in return for a smartphone, and another where disappointment is registered at catching a dull case (“Can’t we do a rape or a gang rape?” grumbles one character). It’s in these moments of dark observation where Polisse recalls The Wire (the landmark HBO show to which it’s been rather unconvincingly compared).Unlike David Simon’s show, though, it never gets to grips with the labyrinthine menace of institutions on any meaningful level; authority figures are summarily cast as two-dimensional husks.
There’s too much effective stuff in this messy film to write it off as a total failure. The grainy aesthetic is apposite, and the performances are generally strong across the board. Furthermore, in its own weirdly shambolic way, Polisse does a good job of painting the embattled CPU as some kind of living, gasping organism composed of raggedy, interdependent human parts, ploughing a thankless furrow in a bleak urban landscape.
However, it’s the combination of fundamental structural problems and constant recourse to hysterical melodrama which really derail things. As the film rushes headlong into an overwrought denoument (which will surely be parodied for years to come), the realisation hits you that there’s been no real narrative arc to speak of; you’ve just been beaten over the head for two hours from all angles. Narrative strands repeatedly pop up, then disappear without trace, often making it extremely difficult to follow what’s going on. It makes you appreciate the skill of, say, (the late) Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor (editors on multi-character opus’ Short Cuts and Magnolia respectively) who knew exactly when to pick up one story and leave another.
If one was to be generous in the extreme, one might suggest the film’s wayward form was designed to mirror the chaotic interior lives and profession of its characters. But that would be pushing it big time. Polisse would have made a compelling TV series, allowing space for themes and characters to flourish. As it is, itregisters as a weird, passionate, misshapen lump of a film which simply has way too much going on, marshalled with nowhere near enough skill.
‘The mythological ground of Art is littered with the scattered corpses of lost heroes and heroines.’
So we might be heard to remark, downing a last pint of bitter with the rabble in our local Public House before kicking off another opium-fuelled, semi-apocalyptic night of gambling and debauchery at the Notting Hill Bear-Baiting Pit to the soundtrack of Jim Morrison as read by William Burroughs.
Our modern era tends to fetishise the Romantic cult of the tragic and self-destructive lone genius. It’s a familiar legend and often takes two distinctive forms: In the one, a young flame burns bright and fast, and is extinguished early (think Byron, River Phoenix, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse); in the second the artist’s talent is only fully appreciated after their anonymous death (think Kafka, Arthur Russell, Van Gogh, John Kennedy Toole).
In both of these forms the artist appears as an elevated ephemeral presence. Their death is often portrayed as being somehow synonymous with their art, as though in the pursuit of that art they really had no other option but to live fast and die young. Often, in hindsight, they are seen as doomed before they started: silent, enigmatic, unknowable. In the latter form (the Kafka-Russell-Van Gogh form), this inscrutable muteness stems largely from the fact that the artist was never given the chance to exist in the public sphere –limited (or no) words beyond their work, no interviews, no way of being seen from other angles; in the former, the enigma is retained and fostered through the alluring tragedy of a young death – the artist never had the chance to exist in public whilst growing old.
Jean Vigo, director of L’Atalante has a little of each of these forms in him, and a third, having died both as a young and mostly unrecognised talent, and directly in the pursuit of his art. The supposed tragedy of his existence (which takes as its basis the assumption that the sum of a life is simply the ‘things that happen’ to a person as opposed to the journey and growth of one’s spiritual and emotional character) can lead to critical portrayals of his human qualities (and from there, his work) that are neither accurate, nor essentially in keeping with what we can tell about his perspective on the world as evidenced through his films and writings and as recalled by his friends.
Here we find that Vigo belongs on a different list. On the whole the majority of critical responses linger, not on his definitive genius, but on his potential for genius. There’s often a tacit acknowledgement that what remains (ie the work itself) is in itself by no means fully expressive of what he seemed capable of.
This is obviously a very confusing standpoint. If Vigo did not produce the goods then is his legend founded wholly on the tragedy of his death? And if this is indeed the case, could we all not be appreciated many years after we die?
It is clear that the ‘tragic’ reading of his life might initially have been the only reason Vigo’s films, not only continued to linger, but also gained a significant following in the decade after his death. But it is clearly only possible to consider his legend from the perspective of what is there to be seen. Similarly, to speak of the films Vigo might have made had he not died so young, as many rapt fans are wont to do, is as pointless an act of imagination as to speculate on, say, what a Unicorn might enjoy eating for breakfast (pancakes).
‘As for L’Atalante, there are as many ways to love it as there are ways to love.’
L’Atalante is the kind of film that fans tend to whisper about in tones of hushed reverence. Those who don’t ‘get it’ decry it loudly as over-rated nonsense. Some postulate that Vigo’s previous film Zéro de Conduite is his real masterpiece and more truly representative of his anarchist social-political character. It’s an argument that has raged since L’Atalante’s 1934 press screening, subsequent theatrical recut, and ultimate commercial failure: is it actually any good? Or just flashes of a good film? And does it represent Vigo the man? In this context, I think it appropriate to comment from a particularly personal standpoint on what it was about this curious, strange and tender film that affected me.
As a first-time viewer what really strikes you first about the film is the lightness of directorial touch. Vigo wasn’t purist avant-garde, but a firm advocate of socially committed experimental cinema. From this standpoint we get a lot of documentary-esque shots of barges and the French canal system. Vigo’s director of photography was Boris Kaufman, who went on to win an Oscar for the cinematography in On the Waterfront, and if there was to be nothing else worth seeing in the film it is stunningly shot.
This very authentic sense (one might consider it as an expression of Vigo’s social conscience – for example, the film uses shots real unemployment lines to touch on the economic crisis of the time) is offset by a tremendously playful script and warm, open performances from the cast. Much has been written about the tour de force performance Vigo coaxed out of Michel Simon as the old Seadog Pére Jules, but Jean Dasté as the inexperienced, clumsily-loving Jean and, in particular Dita Parlo as the by turns innocent and curious, erotic and feline Juliette are stunning. There’s an abundance of comedy throughout the film. On the kinds of issues that, even today, are often naturally approached from a moralising and judgemental position, the film is surprisingly neutral. This neutrality makes it feel strangely contemporary – not even contemporary – something still existing beyond, in a more enlightened future. Its approach to gender relations, and in particular its approach to the idea of what love might be or mean is way ahead of its time. It could almost act as a manifesto on gender equality.
On paper Vigo’s last film is a very simple love story (‘run of the mill’, as described by film blogger James Travers). The script – a nothing piece by a man called Jean Guinée – was given to Vigo by his producer and ardent supporter Jacques-Louis Nounez with the intention of keeping him out of trouble (Zéro de Conduite had been banned for subversive content)
This original screenplay was so stolid and moralising in tone that the radical Vigo apparently exclaimed: ‘What the fuck do you want me to do with this – it’s Sunday school stuff.’ But some days later he had suddenly and unexpectedly become excited at the idea of filming it, having apparently found a way to operate within its template.
In fact, all he ultimately kept was the bare bones of the plot. All the moralising overtones of the Guinée script were not simply abandoned but operated against. Out of a traditional Romantic tale full of petit-borgeouis moralising, Vigo created something that could easily be called subversive. By eschewing the traditionalist moral ‘lessons’ of the parable, whilst keeping the traditional format of the plot, Vigo transformed a rather conventional love story into simply: love, rendered.
‘Don’t write love poems…’
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that love is the hardest subject to breach – it’s necessary to wait until one’s talent is fully formed to even think of making an attempt.
Vigo is often described as a visual poet. In contrast to what might be implied when critics write extensively of his potential, his talent was certainly fully formed at the point of making L’Atalante. Alone, the film stands as an effervescent affirmation of non-judgemental love – a testament to the necessity of independence and equality. Considering the time it was made, but also the incredible difficulty of the shoot (Vigo directed most of the film from a stretcher) and his relative inexperience, it’s quite an astonishing achievement. As Marina Warner notes in her fantastically perceptive book for the BFI: ‘Vigo’s complete transformation of pessimism into hope fulfils the conditions of classical romance, of course, but it also proposes a modern strategy to the dilemmas of life and love, as opposed to morbidity and misogyny. Paradoxically, his romance represents a turning away from romanticism.’
To attempt to go into further depth about this film would surely take a much longer article, and would, I’m afraid, make something of a love poet of me. In that sense it might also (and with justification) be read as contrary to the (somewhat contradictory) point this author offers, and in steadfast opposition to the advice of Rilke – my skills notwithstanding. Best then to leave on one last quote from one of the film’s other admirers:
‘L’Atalante is a film whose feet smell.’
So said Francois Truffaut, and I can’t think of a more fitting appraisal. This statement is not simply an affectionate comment on the fact that the film is flawed. It touches on Vigo’s inclusion of a hardened reality and a social/political message at the heart of a love story. It also implies, indirectly, the film’s most subversive message: that there is joy to be taken from the smell of feet. More, that there is nothing really beyond the fact that nothing is perfect: the willing acceptance of flaws is all there is. Idealisation, then, is a misnomer when real life is so much fuller.
The difficulty in writing about L’Atalante has not been finding words. Quite the opposite: the difficulty for me has been attempting to present a balanced and realistic portrait of an actual film that can actually be seen in an actual cinema – within the confines of a word limit, and without going overboard with my evident enthusiasm.
Finally I would say that, especially when considering the absence of a current DVD edition of the film, L’Atalante’s extended run at the BFI Southbank should be a cause for celebration. I would recommend anyone with a passionate interest in film to take the opportunity to see this on the big screen.
 Vigo died from septicemia, sustained as a consequence of the months of intense work the filming of L’Atalante took on his already frail, tubercular body, before the film was ever released.
 From anonymous beginnings as the weakly and incognito son of a murdered former anarchist and entrepreneur to an inauspicious end at the tender age of twenty-nine, leaving behind a wife and young child.
 It’s interesting here to note that the act immortalisation works on the basis of emotional preservation; using tragedy and pathos as a tool we mummify the artist, their life and their works, in the cultural consciousness. Hence an artist who has not lived a tragic life is harder to elevate. Conversely, the press will often be seen hounding troubled stars to their deaths. Artists of supreme talent in Western society have taken on the mantle of the sacrificial lamb or martyr; this is evidenced by the public reaction before and after their deaths.
 See film critic Gilles Jacob writing in the magazine Raccords in 1951 for an argument against falsely perfecting the image of Vigo.
 Which can be seen taking root in an obituary written by the actor and screenwriter Frédéric Pottecher and published in the magazine Comœdia 2 days after Vigo’s death
 Paul Ryan, Jean Vigo: The Ghost in the Vanguard.
 For comparative purposes, see Cathy Landicho’s fantastically incisive recent article on this site about gender roles in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Also, compare this to an article written about L’Atalante by contemporary internet critic Dennis Grunes in 2004 (you’ll find the paragraph I’m thinking of specifically as the third from the bottom of the page, beginning with the words ‘On the other hand…’
 Marina Warner, L’Atalante (p.9) quoting Pierre Lherminier from his book Jean Vigo.
 ‘The madman straight-jacketed’ as Michael Temple puts it.
Check out this great clip of French acting legend Belmondo at the pinnacle of his popularity, hamming it up in the stereotypical role of ‘ballsy cop with a Colgate smile’ that he favoured in the second part of his career – imagine a jovial Dirty Harry or a wisecracking Charles Bronson. It’s a turn light years away from his early career as a Nouvelle Vague luminary.
In this scene from The Professional (1981), Bebel (as he’s affectionately nicknamed in France), with leather jacket wide open and pastry in hand, enters a little Parisian cafe well-set on teaching a hard lesson to a slimy wife-beater. I can understand that the lack of subtitles may be a downer for non-francophones, but you needn’t worry; the swaggering Jean-Paul is able to communicate the international language of macho pastry-dunking with ease – a Gallic equivalent to Lee Van Cleef’s antisocial cigarillo lighting in For A Few Dollars More, if you will. Also, relish in the awesome slapping sound effects.
The last line, superbly, is: “The croissant? Put it on my friend’s tab”.
Here is a sequence from Poliss, a new French crime drama about the child protection services, presented yesterday in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
I’m pretty stoked about the film for a couple of reasons besides its realer-than-real trailer. Firstly, Maïwenn Le Besco (who usually goes by her first name only) is one the quirkiest film personalities in France. Formerly engaged to Luc Besson in her young and idle years (she’s in Leon: The Professional for a couple of seconds and plays the blue, bulbous-headed diva in The Fifth Element), she became a true polymath once he left her, writing and performing comedy stand-up, directing an auteurish film (the ferocious Le bal des actrices / The Actress’ Ball, a painfully honest autofiction on female thespians) and appearing in oddball B-movies, such as the homegrown lesbian slasher High Tension, by Alexandre “Pirahna 3D” Aja. Versatile, I’m telling you.
Maïwenn Le Besco
Secondly, the main part, Fred – a taciturn cop on whom a posh journalist (played by Maiwen) writes a profile piece – is performed by one of France’s most emblematic rappers, Joeystarr of NTM fame. Don’t laugh, France used to have good hip-hop, and he’s truly an icon, sort of the local Nas (speaking of which, they collaborated on a pretty awesome remix together). It’s a bit of an Ice-T move for him, as NTM (for Nique Ta Mere, “Fuck Your Mom”) were sued and fined in the 1990s for “inciting violence against the police”. But the man can really act; his turn in Maïwenn’s previous film Le bal des actrices earned him a nomination for the Best Newcomer Cesar. Moreover, he has a tremendous presence; an animalistic masculinity rivalled only by Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) in the country with 365 kind of cheeses.
I haven’t yet seen the film, but from what I can see on this teaser, Maïwenn, who’s neither trying to make Paris looks like New York nor delivering another Eurotrash action-thriller (yes Luc Besson, I’m looking at you again), may have got things right and the hype building around the film could well be worth it. We’ll see in a couple of months.