An old cathedral, dimly lit. Oscar, the actor, walks down a long hallway with an accordion. He starts to play, quietly at first. The camera tracks with him. He turns a corner, and is joined by additional accordion players. The camera follows as they march around the cathedral, picking up more and more players and musicians. Their song grows louder, more energetic. The camera does not cut away, save for one moment of anticipation among the band before they resume their merrymaking. The scene is pure joy of performance, sound, and movement.
Scene: A limo in Manhattan, driving through an anarchist protest. The protestors are drawing graffiti on the outside of the limo, rocking it back and forth. Inside are Eric Packer, the young CEO of Packer Capital, and his Chief of Theory, Vija Kinsky.
KINSKY: You have to understand: the more visionary the idea, the more people it leaves behind. This is what the protest is all about. Visions of technology and wealth, the force of cyber-capital that will send people to the gutter to wretch and die. What is the flaw of human rationality?
KINSKY: It pretends not to see the horror and death at the ends of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. They want to hold off the future. They want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present. The future is always a wholeness, a sameness, we’re all tall and happy there. This is why the future fails. It can never be the cruel and happy place we want to make it. What would happen if they knew the head of Packer capital was in the car? We know what the anarchists have always said?
KINSKY: Tell me.
PACKER: The urge to destroy is a creative urge.
Holy Motors handles its central conceit – a man, played by Denis Lavant, living his life as a series of roles in a variety of short films – with a delicate balance of elegy and fun. It is a sad and mournful film, both grieving over the loss of “cinema” and the loss of self in a postmodern world. But there is joy, too, as it finds inventive ways of approaching death, technology, sex, love, family, aging, music, madness, and storyteling. And Oscar is not alone. The holy motors are everywhere, and everyone is acting.
It’s possible it’s all much ado about nothing, a cynical attempt to drum up nostalgia over the death of film without much substance. What happens, however, is that director Leos Carax tackles the utopian promises of the cinema by contrasting it with the disappointing, meaningless, and disorganized processes by which we travel through the day-to-day. That the cinema is a lie – that all these roles are temporary, designed and performed for the benefit of an invisible audience – isn’t ignored. Rather, cinema’s value is in the lie itself, and the challenge it poses: Are you capable of looking past the lie and seeing something beyond it? Or is it just a parlor trick, an intellectual fancy that doesn’t matter because it’s false?
The actors of Holy Motors at least have the benefit of knowing they are part of a larger project. Eric Packer, the protagonist of Cosmopolis played by Robert Pattinson, is struggling to find any greater meaning in his fortune and misfortune. His company’s value is deflating rapidly due to international politics he can hardly comprehend. His prostate is asymmetrical. What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Sex gives him no pleasure, though he desperately wants it to. He looks at the acts of protestors burning themselves alive but can’t find purpose to it because it’s “not original.” But if it was original, what would he think then? He doesn’t know, which is largely the problem. He plans for the future, but for what end?
Cosmopolis is an artificial film. The dialogue is baroque, and delivered by its actors without any attempt at the kind of verisimilitude we’ve come to expect in our contemporary line readings. Sarah Gadon, who plays Pattinson’s wife, is particularly brilliant at this. The limo itself is never convincingly moving through the city; at no point are you unaware that it is anything but a set. Characters come and go out of the limo quickly, but where did they come from? How did they know to find it? How is Benno Levin, Packer’s disgruntled former employee played by Paul Giamatti, able to track the limo’s route? How does he come to live in that apartment directly across the street from the limo’s garage?
These are not nitpicks. Director David Cronenberg has made a film about its own artifice, its own inability to fully and realistically exist. Its characters struggle to find reality admist the deluge of data and wealth and conversation that they endure everyday. What does the future hold out for them, especially if the artifice they’ve worked to construct is so false and could come crashing down at any moment? Is there any kind of utopia they can even imagine, let alone create?
The irony of Holy Motors is that it allows for so many possibilities and yet the characters are trapped in their scripts. Oscar acts the way he does because his roles demand it. It is the same with every other character: nobody does anything unexpected. And if they do, such as when Kylie Minogue’s actress kills herself, it’s only unexpected to the observer. Everyone acts as they are supposed to, not how they want. Oscar’s roles change often and dramatically, but ultimately he’s just following the script. The world of Holy Motors may offer a future of hope, but it is future not of its own characters’ creation. How does one live in the world where your actions are not your own, where the end is already written?
“I wanted you to save me,” says Giamatti’s Levin at the end of Cosmopolis. This is after a long conversation in which Levin and Packer talk about, and talk around, Levin’s motivations for wanting to kill Packer. There are many reasons, it seems, and at the same time none. Packer is rich and Levin is poor, and at the end of the day that’s about all there needs to be.
But what will Packer’s murder solve? Levin doesn’t know, but even Packer himself seems open to the possibility that it might be necessary. He doesn’t want to die, but he can’t quite articulate why he shouldn’t die. Whatever the future will be, his fake world can’t be a part of it.
The promise of cinema is the possibility of being able to see anything one can imagine, of having everything be real. Even in the CGI era, we still approach the art of film much as André Bazin did, as possessing “an integral realism, a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.”
But of course cinema’s reality is false. Everybody knows that and always has. It’s what makes Hollywood so enticing in the American imagination, a place where dreams literally spring to life. We accept cinema’s falseness in order to accept cinema.
What happens when the falsity of the cinema overwhelms, when it no longer appears possible to shape the mess of the world into something coherent that we can see and hear? That’s the question at the heart of these two films, and it is a question that reaches beyond simply the cinema. How do you live when the stories of society and the self are no longer effective? Do we give into self-pity, desperately trying to find meaning in inconsequential things, or do we push on, acting our roles with what enthusiasm we can muster while knowing all the same that we are slouching toward an ending? Is the cinema a fantasy or a solution?