Ta punition, c’est d’être toi

“I go on as I began: for the beauty of the gesture,” says Denis Lavant’s character midway through the fantastic and fantastically sad Holy Motors. As he (Monsieur Oscar) utters those words, peeling the prosthetic skin off of his face and glaring strangely at Michel Piccoli’s character, I could feel the sparse and scattered audience around me in the movie theater stiffen slightly, as if a low voltage current had gone through all of us. This is what this film means, we all thought to ourselves, thrilling to the justification and the way it matched the wondrous and gross and disconcerting gestures we had been watching for the last hour.

A fine understanding of how astonishingly beautiful la geste can be unites all of Leos Carax’s films. In them, this gesture is a passionate and extreme employment of the body that encompasses and surpasses both use-value and exchange-value. These gestures are the panache from Cyrano de Bergerac. They are the synaesthetic moments in Rimbaud. They are the senses put to art, no matter whether the bodies that house these senses and the situations that result are hideous or obscene, funny or touching or elegant. Carax engineers these gestures on screen, but he hopes that as spectators, we will complete them.

It has been well documented by now that Holy Motors pays tender tribute to film history, from Carax’s own filmmaking to George Franju’s love of l’insolite to Étienne-Jules Marey‘s serial photography (with many in between). Perhaps film isn’t the only art form that can produce the gesture of which Monsieur Oscar speaks, but it might well be the only one that can capture the quest as well as the fleeting result.

“The [story of cinema] starts with the human body, or an action,” Carax tells Interview magazine.

“We always have, and we still love to watch human bodies in action. We also love to watch landscapes or things we have created, buildings or cigarettes, guns and cars… but above all, we love to watch human bodies, whether they’re walking, running, fucking, or anything.”

The plight explored in Holy Motors is twofold. First: how can art as a sensual gesture be created and recreated in a world which increasingly de-emphasizes the embodied use of the senses? Second: how can art be created and recreated by artists as their bodies and senses change, fatigue and deaden with the passage of time?

Carax suggests a multiplicity of answers to these questions as he takes us around his Paris. (Will this be the last film which manages to make Paris penultimately modern and eternal at the same time?) Viewers can choose to hold onto the ecstatic parts of Holy Motors (like the entr’acte above) or the maudlin ones. Or even accept la grande geste in all its complexity.

Like the young daughter Monsieur Oscar drops home in a fury after picking her up from a house party, Carax is brutal with us: our punishment is being ourselves, and having to live with that. Yet he clearly shows us the flip-side of this punishment, as well: our lives of the senses.

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