Start with “Cosmopolis”, the lesser of the two. More or less living in his slow-rolling, pimped-out limousine over the course of a long day and night, Robert Pattinson personifies an idea: the brilliant financial manipulations that generate so much Wall Street wealth and so little real value.
Barely adult and for all practical purposes infinitely rich; powerful, heartless, and aware that he’s unawake, this math-geek speculator peers through tinted, soon spray-painted windows at a New York City roiling with anarchic violence and anti-capitalist passion.
The actor’s previous success playing a vampire seems to inform his bloodless portrayal of Eric Packer here. Perhaps Packer was a credibly human character in the original novel by the masterful seer/storyteller Don DeLillo; I haven’t read it. But in the cold, dead hands of David Cronenberg, nothing here lives. Even cameos by Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti, and Mathieu Amalric can’t jolt this corpse to life.
Peculiar and well-made, the movie is engaging as a technical exercise in constrained filmmaking, like “Phone Booth” or “Premium Rush”. And in fairness, “Cosmopolis” is a whole lot less disgusting than most of Cronenberg’s work.
What this picture lacks — perhaps intentionally — is the spark of life. Compared to Viggo Mortensen in Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” or William Hurt in his “A History of Violence” — angry men of flesh and blood — Pattinson plays an abstraction. It’s kind of intriguing that Packer doesn’t mind when hooligans spray-paint his car, that his mild curiosity engages only when his life is threatened. He belongs in a freak show.
So let’s move on, to a game with much higher stakes: “Holy Motors”.
In “Holy Motors”, the supple chameleon Denis Lavant spends a long day and night working out of a long stretch limousine. Playing an actor, and credited with eleven roles in this astonishing film, he uses the car as a mobile dressing room. His transformations, achieved with makeup, costumes, and lithe physicality, create a series of characters, each throbbing with life, each convincingly engaged in the real world.
But what is that, exactly — the real world? By the end of this film, we can be sure we don’t know.
In its first minutes, “Holy Motors” sets out its themes in a manner at once straightforward and perplexing. We open with a charming clip of antique cinema. We see an audience in a darkened theatre. A man in pajamas and Marcello Mastroianni sunglasses (played by the film’s writer-director, Leos Carax) awakens in the night. He pushes through a hidden door. We enter the black void of a theatre, and dimly see an audience, the tops of their heads crescents lit by the projector above and behind them. Down an aisle dimly defined by two rows of floor lights, lumbers a great dark dog. The shadowy, slow-moving creature, heading toward us, is like unconsciousness itself.
Then our day begins. Lavant appears as Monsieur Oscar, the hardworking fellow with the fine suit and executive briefcase who waves goodbye to his kids and greets several sets of armed guards protecting his shiplike modern home. He enters his limousine at dawn.
His prim chauffeur, played by Edith Scob, crisply informs M. Oscar that he has nine appointments today, calling his attention to the dossiers placed on his seat. Next thing you know, he’s talking numbers via the Bluetooth set in his ear, resembling nothing more than a grown-up French version of Eric Packer.
For a moment we may imagine we’ve found our bearings. But then M. Oscar emerges from the limo and walks onto a crowded Parisian bridge — in the guise of a crone as old and bent as any in the Grimms’ fairy tales. Oh, we think. Something’s up here.
Much of the joy in this mesmerizing film is in action and acting. Like the Olivier de Sagazin sequence in “Samsara”, “Holy Motors” delights in the fluid uncertainty of human identity and the visceral power of performance. M. Oscar’s portrayals are convincingly realized, yet as each character flows into the next, some kernel of identity persists, like the soul that endures through the reincarnations of Hindu theology. Lavant and M. Oscar are, like us, human beings acting: Even in the most grotesque roles, we remain ourselves. As for all the other people out in the world, the presumably normal folks with whom M. Oscar’s characters interact, what are they? Actors? Human beings? Souls?
The movie’s design dissolves such differences: between cinema and real life, the real and the imagined, performer and audience, between Lavant and M. Oscar, between them and you, between you and me. What Carax achieves in 115 minutes is staggering. In the density of its impact, “Holy Motors” is the artistic equivalent of a thermonuclear bomb.
At one point in the film, M. Oscar plays a scar-faced killer assigned to dispatch his victim with a switchblade knife. All I can say about the astonishing sequence that ensues is that it trumps Vladimir Nabokov’s memorable passage in Lolita:
We fell to wrestling again. We rolled all over the floor, in each other’s arms, like two huge helpless children. He was naked and goatish under his robe, and I felt suffocated as he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.
Much later — by now it’s night — M. Oscar notices a new presence in the car. It’s a man, apparently his employer, played by Michel Piccoli:
Piccoli: What makes you carry on, Oscar?
Lavant: What made me start: the beauty of the act.
Piccoli: Beauty? They say it’s in the eye, the eye of the beholder.
Lavant: And if there’s no more beholder?
And there we are. M. Oscar — or Lavant — whoever he may be — is performing for an audience. No cameras are in sight, an absence M. Oscar laments. But of course, we are seeing all this on film, so by definition, cameras must have been present. At a minimum, irrefutably, the audience is us. So what’s going on?
That’s a great question — maybe even the ultimate question. I can’t think of a film that addresses it better. Carax is too French to avoid logic — on the contrary, “Holy Motors” is a marvel of disciplined, coherent argument. What makes this movie extraordinary and important, though, is that Carax constructs his argument irrationally, cinematically, with images and situations rather than words. If the unconscious has logic, this must be it.
Once you meet M. Oscar’s family, at the end of the film, you’ll see what I mean.
FOR A MORE RATIONAL APPROACH, read James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science. Among the most enlightening non-fiction books Krundt has read, Chaos describes how scientists are coming to terms with the unpredictable and disorderly aspects of nature that so fascinate artists: “the harmonious arrangement of order and disorder as it occurs in in natural objects, in clouds, trees, mountain ranges or snow crystals.” From the turbulence of weather systems to what Thomas Hardy described as the braiding of water atop a moving stream, nature produces chaotic systems in which similarities and patterns can be discerned. The irregular branching of veins in a single maple leaf — “an infinite line in a finite space” — evokes the branching and sub-branching of the tree’s limbs, great and small. What science has learned to describe, says Gleick, is the way such similarities and patterns persist across scales, from the micro level to the macro, much as M. Oscar — or Lavant — persists in each of his characters.
Anyone who would understand our world must notice this braiding of things, the unity of what Gleick’s scientists observe and what Carax sees. Turbulence and uncertainty mark the meetings of the dissimilar, whether it’s hot air meeting cold or M. Oscar becoming someone else. We, the actors in the audience, look for patterns, needing to discern some persisting identity that we can recognize.