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Cinema through a cloudy eye

holy-motors-manhole260pix.jpgBolstered by Akira Ifukube's trudging "Gojira" theme and the shorthand it affords, on two separate filmic occasions director Leos Carax chose to pair it with a city-scrolling vista, and in doing so reference his past work for the first time. Homage and visual motifs have always earmarked the enigmatic auteur's films, namely in the unstable romances of "Boy Meets Girl" and "Les Amants de Pont Neuf," but within his two most recent efforts -- a section of the 2008 triptych "Tokyo!" and his 2012 vexing "Holy Motors" -- he centers this rare repetition on one character that is not so much a reprisal as it is an emotional transformation.

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Carax's focused protagonist dwells chiefly beneath metropolitan streets, and in both "Tokyo!" and "Motors," his method of emergence remains the same. Once Ifukube's twelve extended notes have completed their opening strains, and neither giant lizards nor Pharaohe Monch have resulted, the camera instead irises in on a manhole cover shifting awkwardly open. One shove later and out hurtles Monsieur Merde (Denis Lavant), a grimy leprechaun-esque creature sprung from Francis Bacon's nightmares and peering out from behind a milky right eye. A crow squawks, as it will do in an aural punctuation whenever Merde appears, and in a flash he's off stalking the city avenues in a single take, tempting a predilection for chaos, chrysanthemum consumption, and a dose of armpit licking for good measure.

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Taking their main anarchic inspiration from Jean Renoir's "Testament de Docteur Cordelier," the segments are separated both by location and four years in their productions, but as short as that gap may seem, the two works feature distinct progressions in Carax's exasperated perspective. Faced with decade-long financial woes hindering his next project, as well as looking on in horror at cinema's increasing turn toward digital filmmaking, Carax decided with "Tokyo!" to abrasively sidle up alongside Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-Ho's entries with a shocking, garish hit of cinema. Centered around Merde's Tokyo rampage -- which eventually leads to him killing hundreds by setting off a stockpile of grenades in a populated city center -- the 40-minute entry is by turns comic and utterly terrifying, Carax gleefully displaying his impulsive monster up onscreen and turning him loose.

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Following this initial burst of shocking violence, Carax then transfers to the Japanese courts -- who put Merde up on trial following his eventual police capture -- to elaborate an unnerving observation on communication. Maître Volant (Jean-François Balmer), a French lawyer who curiously sports the same cloudy eye and wispy red beard, is brought in to translate and defend the creature's intentions with a guttural blend of moans, clicks, and arm movements. A comical number of translators also fill the room, as Voland echoes Merde's racist and horrific thoughts to the judge in French, which is then translated into Japanese and back again. After listening to Merde state his god places him "among the people I hate the most," the judge serves down a hanging sentence to the creature, a fate that eventually leads to his death and seemingly supernatural escape into the wild.

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With Carax's cliffhanger promise of U.S.-based mayhem at the end of "Tokyo!," it is then peculiar to see the character of Merde whittled down from an emblem of so many things - xenophobia, tri-lingual disconnect, and terrorism -into, at first glance, a love-struck suitor played for comedic effect in "Motors." Transfixed completely by an American model (Eva Mendes) mid-photoshoot in the Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise, he is Freddy Krueger with claws filed down, his previous menace all but vanished. But then, the entire film surrounding this event is emphatically concerned with the art of stripping away and building up imitation. Carax has revealed that "Motors" sprung from his "incapacity to carry out several projects, all of them in another language and another country," and that all of them encountered the two obstacles: "casting and cash." Reflecting back then upon "Tokyo!," he set out afterwards to make a project "under the same conditions, but in France -- come up with an inexpensive film, quickly, for a pre-selected actor."

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That rapid pace and disorganized sense is occasionally apparent in the final product, but underneath its dizzying swirl of genre, spectacle, and oblique nods that barely cloaks Carax's frustration underneath, the question of his "pre-selected actor" can, and always will, be answered with Denis Lavant's name. For the entirety of Carax's body of work, the former acrobat and stage actor has continually created a gallery of quixotic characters, his expressive body somehow extending that contortion to his personality itself. He has likewise maintained a fiercely concealed public persona throughout his own impressive career, and so in the Monsieur Oscar character of "Motors," one feels his vision of a beleaguered yet invested entertainer may, by all accounts, be an exact self-portrait. Oscar has been travelling from one acting assignment to the next in his Édith Scob-driven stretch limousine, and when the film at last catches up to his Merde role, the answer to his post-hanging escape in "Tokyo!" suddenly becomes clear: He eluded death simply and obviously because he is an actor in a film, and also one late for another make-up session and demanding narrative.

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Experiencing the pleasures of "Motors" lie in the way Carax distorts and twists representation from every angle, and when Merde lurches through Père Lachaise, his behavior has become just an example of Oscar's form, a trained routine of eating flowers in between hurried drags of cigarette and terror. So when he is stunned to silence before Eva Mendes' beauty -- her eyes glancing over and locking with his -- it's as though Mendes has seen past Merde to Lavant himself, perhaps as a fellow pretender in her field. This exchange strikes to the heart of "Motors," which -- for all of its concerns of identity and obscured meanings -- finds nostalgic resonance in the impossible preservation of beauty. Even an id-driven creature like Merde feels this, and as he kidnaps Mendes from the cemetery -- pursued closely by a wonderfully-caricatured New York photog (Geoffrey Carey) - it is apparent why, from Merde's bizarrely poignant gestures toward her down in his lair, that Carax chose to bring him back for a second, melancholic round.

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Few events in the rest of "Holy Motors" unfurl as "predictably" as Merde's subterranean exploits, but one final instance of such waits until the film's end, taking place when the titular limousines return to their cavernous warehouse garage. Within the snappy conversation between unmanned vehicles inside (yes, that's right), the focus on decaying function and outmoded needs becomes underlined with a rather unnecessary clarity, and it marks Carax's rare moment of underestimating both his audience as well as his own talents in speaking to them. However, the philosophical repartee between limos is a pleasant hiccup still, and whether Carax means to come off so exuberantly depressed about cinema's future or not, in the midst of such grand pessimism luckily lies his cipher of an actor, and the demented beard and contacts to which he occasionally returns.

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